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On St. Patrick's Day this year, the leader of the city's one-million-plus unionized workers rolled up to the pre-march events in a stretch limo. This caused more than a few heads to turn.
Although he has kept a low profile, Jack Ahern has been president of the New York City Central Labor Council since January 2009. This makes him the public face of America's largest local labor federation, the spokesman for every New Yorker holding a union card, from supermarket checkout clerks to construction tradesmen. Which is why news of Ahern's deluxe ride made a fast round on the union gossip circuit.
A few weeks later, there was more talk when Ahern's stipend for the part-time task of running the council doubled from $40,000 to $80,000. This is in addition to the $270,000 in salary and expenses he receives as head of Local 30 of the Operating Engineers union and as an officer of his national union.
Some labor leaders make more than this. But perception is no small issue at the city's labor council. It's still digging its way out of the scandal created by former council president Brian McLaughlin, who was found in 2006 to have stolen millions, a chunk of it from council programs.
Ahern was supposed to be part of the solution. After the McLaughlin debacle, he was elected executive vice president. He helped rewrite the constitution and bylaws, adding new layers of review. Since moving up to president, he has led rallies for Wall Street reform and pushed for higher wages for low-income workers. He cites reform as his biggest achievement. "One of the things I am most proud of is the transparency and accountability that we as a board have added," Ahern said last week in a lengthy sit-down.
The council's first post-McLaughlin leader—Gary LaBarbera of the Teamsters—made a point of not taking extra pay for the part-time post. But the bylaws allow it, and the decision to raise Ahern's stipend to $80,000 was approved by an audit committee and the full board. "It is a heavy load of responsibility," Ahern said. "It's a 24/7 job, and I am protecting other people's work and other people's jobs."
The St. Patrick's Day limo was a mistake, he allowed. "I had ordered a large car and they sent a limo," he said. He later repaid the $1,200 cost. "I didn't want it becoming a focal point," he said.
But a small item on the Voice's Web page about the limo and the pay hike evoked a storm of hundreds of comments from members of Ahern's own union local based in Richmond Hill, Queens. Some of it was the kind of bile that piles up wherever anonymous rants are allowed. But the same allegations kept repeating: Favors doled out to a small circle of cronies; union scholarships awarded to Ahern's family and friends; a labor leader living large off his 4,000-member local, enjoying free season tickets to Yankees and Mets games, while using members and union employees to work on his Long Island home.
Ahern denies any wrongdoing. Baseless gripes, he calls the charges, cooked up by a handful of opponents. "It's the same political infighting that's been going on for 10 years," he said.
But some gripes check out. Despite his hefty multiple salaries, Ahern's two children won scholarships in recent years, although he declined to give a total amount. "Any member's children or grandchildren are eligible," he said. Some members might be in the dark about the winners, he acknowledged, since the local stopped publishing the names a few years ago. In fact, it stopped publishing its newsletter as well. "We are in the process of revamping it," he said.
Had he considered publishing the names on the Internet, as other unions do? "We are actually rebuilding our website, too," he said. "But we could do that."
Ahern said he had never been a trustee of the fund that doles out the scholarships. He retracted that after he was shown copies of tax filings he signed as late as 2008 as trustee and chief financial officer. "I misspoke," he said. "I meant I wasn't on the committee that chooses the winners."
The fund got a new name and rules a couple of years ago on the advice of union lawyers, Ahern said. Scholarship amounts also increased to $2,500 per semester, with awards extending for eight straight semesters. Tax filings for the funds posted on the state attorney general's website show that the names of winners were listed until a year ago. Then the new fund stopped listing them there as well.
To clear the air, Ahern said he'd have the longtime chairman of the scholarship committee call and explain things. Instead, Hugh Murray, whose son and other relatives also received scholarships, e-mailed a letter defending the system, but directed all questions to his attorney.
Claims that Ahern enjoys free baseball tickets for himself and his pals are more off-base rumors, he said. Yes, the Northeastern Engineers Federal Credit Union, where he serves as chairman, has season tickets to both Yankees and Mets games. "I don't use them," he stated. Never? "I may've gone to the odd game or so," he amended. "But it's not typical." The tickets are not chump change. The credit union's four seats at Yankee Stadium are valued at $1,500 per game; its four Citifield seats go for $1,000. Again, Ahern had the credit union director fax over a statement backing him up, but declining to answer any other questions.
For his credit union duties, Ahern acknowledged that he receives yet another salary, in addition to his labor council and union pay. He declined to say how much he earns, as did credit union officials. "I don't want this to be about my salary," he said.
That's kind of hard to avoid when you won't discuss it. Ahern also went mute regarding several other matters cited by a half-dozen Local 30 members who brought their complaints directly to the Voice. He refused to discuss specifics of an incident involving a former maintenance worker for the local who was injured on the job. Several union members said that the injury occurred while the employee, Jose Fernandez, was working on Ahern's $1.2 million home in Old Westbury.
"Not true," said Ahern. "It's impossible." Fernandez had never worked for the local, he said. Actually, Fernandez was listed as a Local 30 employee on federal union reports signed by Ahern.
He likewise declined to discuss other work done on his residence by members. Ahern initially said that any help he'd received was merely a friendly gesture. "I would work on their house, and they would work on my house," he said. Some members, he then added, may also have been paid for their help.
Ahern referred all of these questions to a former New Jersey judge, James Zazzali, who is serving as an independent ethics officer for the Operating Engineers union. The same disgruntled members had made the same charges to Zazzali, said Ahern. "He reviewed them. They were found to be without merit."
When contacted, Zazzali paused when told that. "In fairness, that's his view of it," said the judge. "All I can say is that the matter is under continuing review."
One matter stands resolved, however. A day after meeting with the Voice, Ahern's local revamped its website, figuring out a way to post the names of four of its 2010 scholarships winners, and encouraging members to submit applications for the next round.