By Keegan Hamilton
By Albert Samaha
By Village Voice staff
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
By Steve Weinstein
By Devon Maloney
By Tessa Stuart
All told, there have been eight guilty pleas, $158 million recovered, and 16 settlements with the industry's biggest players, who agreed to end their trolling for public dollars by using politically connected brokers. Biben and Lacewell were such a durable team that they came to be known in the office by a single name: "Ellinda." Both brought a decade of prosecutorial achievements with them to the attorney general's office. Biben had worked under Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau, where she handled racketeering and fraud cases; Lacewell was a federal prosecutor in Brooklyn who brought down an international ecstasy-smuggling ring. Neither knew Cuomo when he hired them to oversee public corruption for the attorney general's office. They made it on old-fashioned merit. And it paid off.
Gene Clarke is a carpenter, not a prosecutor, but he has long been exposing corruption in his union, the New York City District Council of Carpenters. The federal government had largely declared victory in its effort to purge mobsters from the union's ranks when Clarke complained in 2001 that union officials were manipulating the hiring list on behalf of favored contractors, ignoring those long out of work. Clarke, aided by lawyer Jim Wasserman, wrote to the federal judge overseeing the union under a 1993 consent decree. The case was reopened, and assistant U.S. attorneys Ed Scarvalone and Ben Torrance found Clarke's charges a roadmap to other abuses. A lengthy investigation followed, with many stops and starts. Former police corruption prober Walter Mack was named to investigate, but union bigs maneuvered him out after he zeroed in on the culprits. Fortunately, the probe caught the attention of a spitfire prosecutor named Lisa Zornberg, who last month won the conviction of the mobbed-up leader of the largest employers' association. Last week, Clarke was in court to see former District Council Chief Mike Forde get 11 years for taking bribes; eight others were also convicted. Clarke, 71, who started pounding nails in the Bronx as a teenager, says there's more work to be done. "I'm still active," says Clarke, who beat cancer a couple of years ago. "Every time I go on a job, they try to throw me off because they don't want me around. But I'm not going anywhere."
Jane LaTour can rattle off the names of rank-and-file battlers like Gene Clarke in most of the city's unions. She's interviewed them all. For the past 30 years, she's made it her business to chronicle their wins and losses. LaTour, now a reporter for Public Employee Press, was a teenage runaway who found work in factories in New England and New Jersey. She also found a fascination with working life. She was an organizer for the old District 65 (the union that represented the Voice years back), before returning to school for a master's project on union democracy. She put in stints at the Wagner Labor Archives at NYU, followed by the Association for Union Democracy, the inspired Brooklyn-based group that counsels union members. In her spare time, she helped put out Hard Hat News, the country's only newsletter about struggles inside construction unions. In 2009, she published another work of love, a massive homage to women in blue-collar jobs called Sisters in the Brotherhoods, an oral history of women like fire-department pioneer Brenda Berkman, and Janine Blackwelder, the first female ironworker on city skyscrapers. "Every one of them is an inspiration, and their stories deserve telling," says LaTour.
Nancy Wackstein says she feels "like an aging warrior," but we should all be as vigorous and perceptive as she is. She has been advocating on behalf of the poor since 1983, and if the problems haven't gone away, we can still be thankful that there are people like Wackstein who understand both the depth of the dilemma and the obstacles to the cure. She started out working for the Citizens' Committee for Children, analyzing the causes of the city's then-growing wave of homelessness. She spent her days in the deplorable old hotels like the Martinique in Herald Square, where families of four and more camped out in a single room. Later, she crossed over to government and served as the first director of the Office of Homelessness and SRO Housing under David Dinkins. She succeeded in moving families out of the squalid hotels, only to see a new wave take their place. Still, it was a brief era of peace between those fighting for more services and City Hall. After Dinkins, Wackstein moved on to run one of Manhattan's largest social service groups, Lenox Hill Neighborhood House. In 2002, she became director of United Neighborhood Houses, the 90-year-old umbrella group representing the city's great settlement houses, the original refuges for the poor and needy. "We continue in the settlement house tradition," says Wackstein, "fighting for the people who have no influence and no affluence."
George Adams, Linda Levine, and Mark Kronman first united around one common element: mutually graying hair. Together with Levine's late husband, Larry levine, they founded Gray Matters, a collection of older New York professionals looking to put their talents to work for worthy good causes. Kronman, Larry Levine, and Adams all brought their legal talents as attorneys to the table; Linda Levine is an educational anthropologist and teacher. There is also the director of a prominent medical school, a top marketing firm director, and a successful architect. "Small nonprofit groups are frequently clueless about what goes on with leases, for instance," says Kronman. "We can help with the more mundane aspects of functioning."