By Jon Campbell
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By Anna Merlan
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The former leader of the city's 20,000 union carpenters stood up in court last week and confessed to a lie that goes back 16 years. Michael Forde, 55, wore a black suit for his appearance in federal court on Pearl Street. This was appropriate attire for someone giving his own eulogy as a union man.
Since at least 1994, he admitted, he had been conning his members, taking a steady stream of payoffs from contractors in exchange for letting them cheat carpenters out of their hard-won benefits.
He read his plea from a piece of paper he held in his hand. "I, along with other union officials," he said, "accepted bribes in the form of cash payments from certain contractors." He added that when he took the bribes, he knew he was violating a consent decree issued by a judge in the same courthouse. The decree was supposed to represent the sworn agreement by Forde and other union leaders to shun the mobsters and crooks who have long preyed on the New York City District Council of Carpenters, making it one of the Mafia's happiest hunting grounds in the city's cash-rich construction industry.
Instead of avoiding these parasites, Forde made them his steady companions. He never missed a golf outing or a dinner sponsored by the mob-controlled contractors' associations. He took his friends on hunting trips at his family's place in East Durham, the heart of the Irish Catskills. Mike's dad has a fine place there on a little rural road. Martin Forde was also once a carpenters' union leader. That ended in 1987, when he, too, was convicted of taking payoffs from builders to let them cheat his members. The son picked up where the father left off.
One of Mike Forde's guests on the hunting parties was Finbar O'Neill, an immigrant contractor from County Tyrone in Ireland looking to make it big in America. O'Neill took such a shine to the area that he bought his own place just across the road from the Fordes. Another invited deerslayer was Joseph Olivieri, the head of the Association of Wall-Ceiling & Carpentry Industries, and a veteran stalwart of the Genovese crime family. Thanks to support from these pals, and a few others in the Lucchese and Genovese families, O'Neill quickly became one of the city's biggest drywall contractors. Later, he introduced his crew to another contracting pal from Ireland, a lad named James Murray, also looking to make it big. Murray's fortunes bloomed as well, and he was soon the owner of millions of dollars' worth of property, including a sprawling 200-acre country estate.
In the interim, Mike Forde moved up the union ladder. One of the basic reforms contained in the consent decree was direct democratic election by members of District Council officials. In 1999, Forde, then the head of Local 608, the largest carpenters' union chapter, stood for election as leader of the Council. The vote was held at Borough of Manhattan Community College on Chambers Street on the West Side.
On election day, Forde set up in a trailer on the corner of Chambers and Greenwich streets to monitor the turnout. There, he was in the midst of telling me how well things were going when the door of the trailer burst open. A short man with an unmistakable shock of silver hair thrust his head in. This was John "Little John" O'Connor, the former chief of Local 608, who was convicted of labor racketeering in the same case as Forde's dad. O'Connor's bigger claim to fame is that in 1986 he was shot in the butt—a "rocket in his pocket," as John Gotti put it when he ordered the hit amid a dispute over bribes. O'Connor glared at the crowd in the trailer. He hooked a finger at Forde, summoning him outside. Mid-sentence, Forde stopped speaking and bolted out the door.
Upon election, Forde pledged to make his administration the most corruption-free in the union's history. You wanted to believe him. After all, the three previous Council leaders had each been charged with racketeering: One beat the rap; another was convicted; the third disappeared, his wallet washing up under the Throgs Neck Bridge. But over the next few years, every time I heard Forde's lawyers assuring Judge Charles Haight, who was overseeing the federal consent decree, that the Council was doing everything that could be done to keep members and workplaces on the straight and narrow, I thought of how Mike Forde had jumped when Little John O'Connor crooked his finger.
Even after Forde was indicted and convicted on state charges of taking a $50,000 bribe to look the other way while a mob contractor renovated a Midtown hotel with non-union workers, he insisted on his innocence. His able attorneys won a retrial, and the second time around, the jury acquitted him.
He won even more social acceptance by parlaying his union's political action fund into close ties with the state's top politicians. In the decade he ruled the District Council, the union poured more than $3 million into campaign war chests. He made a small army of carpenters available for working the polls and door-knocking for candidates. Politicians named Clinton, Pataki, and Spitzer were among those eagerly seeking and accepting his endorsement. Last summer, even as a grand jury was hearing witnesses against him, Forde embraced Michael Bloomberg at a union dinner, declaring his "great pleasure" at announcing the Council's endorsement of the mayor for re-election. His federal indictment came just five weeks later.
Charged as well were O'Neill, who has pled guilty, along with six other union officials. Olivieri, the mobbed-up contractors' association leader, is still hanging tough. Should he go to trial, which seems unlikely, the top witness against him will be his old deer-hunting pal, Jim Murray. The millionaire Irish contractor cut his own deal last year with Lisa Zornberg and Mark Lanpher, the relentless prosecutors handling the case.
Forde suffered further indignity at his arrest when he tested positive for cocaine. At his guilty plea last week, he told the judge that he is now in a drug and alcohol recovery program. He'll have plenty of time to kick the habits. He faces at least nine years in prison when sentenced in November.
One of those who never bought Mike Forde's pledges of honesty was a 26-year veteran carpenter named Brian Brennan. Carpenters are a vocal lot and have no trouble airing their gripes, though these days, most of it is done anonymously on the Web. Brennan is one of the few who sticks his neck out. In May 2009, he participated in a small demonstration outside the District Council's Hudson Street offices against a cutback in benefits, the very funds Forde's pals were stiffing.
Brennan brought a sack of flour as a heavy-handed prop. "We called it 'Mike's coke.' Everyone knew he had a big habit." A fracas broke out when Brennan tried to go inside to confront benefit-fund officials. He was arrested, accused of hitting a security guard. "I didn't hit anybody," he said. "I'm the one got hit." The district attorney declined criminal charges, but Forde's lieutenants had him brought up before a union trial board. Brennan was ordered expelled and fined $25,000. His attorney, Robert Felix, is still trying to get national union officials to respond to his appeal.
"I'm out of work a year now," said Brennan. "I've got a family I'm trying to feed. Mike was in there all those years, making his deals with his friends. How are they ever going to get this union back together?"