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Fighting Back

Louise Furio knew when she passed out leaflets—illustrated with monkeys in the classic 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' pose—in front of the laborers' union meeting place last summer, she was flirting with trouble. But after seeking help through institutional channels—from the Department of Labor's Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration to the U.S. District Court—with no success, she knew it was time to hit the streets.

So she asked her sister, Rosanna Furio, to come along and watch her back. The leaflets accused Mason Tenders District Council officials of covering up corruption in the union's annuity and benefit funds. "At first, I told Louise I wasn't going. I was afraid," admits Rosanna Furio. But finally, she decided to stick by her sister. "Both of us had worked for the union [as secretaries] most of our lives—30 years between us. We helped expose the thieves in the funds. Then just before Christmas in 1992, we were both fired. Louise was six months short of a full pension," says Rosanna. "I couldn't let her go [hand out leaflets] alone; besides, how would I have felt if something had happened to her?"

The MTDC, once described by a New York tabloid as the city's "dirtiest union," is not as violent today as it was during the early '90s, when it was run by a Genovese crime family capo. Ten of its 12 locals were run by crime families. The Genoveses and the Lucheses fought each other—once with ax handles—for control of Local 46.

Incumbent union officials praise a recent cleanup of mobsters that began in 1994 with the indictment of 25 district council officers, vendors, and employees for labor racketeering and pension and benefits fund theft. While not all indictments were pursued, several persons actually were convicted and went to jail. "You must make a distinction between the current leadership and the previous leadership," says MTDC spokesman Richard Weiss. "Whatever grievances Louise has are with people who are no longer here. She continues to be a disgruntled former employee who has carried out a relentless, and at times pathetic, campaign to right what she considers a wrong."

Nonetheless, bad things still have a way of happening in the 10,000-member umbrella organization for New York City laborers who do the hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the construction industry. In the summer of 1997, Anthony Tarantino, a business agent for Local 95, was found slumped over the steering wheel of his union-leased Buick with a bullet in his head. Christine McKenna, president of the same local, still hasn't turned up. All of the local's assets disappeared too, including a leather couch and the rugs off the floor. In June 1999, Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morgenthau raided Local 79, the largest local in the council, as part of an investigation into labor racketeering, called "Operation Textbook." Indictments have not yet been made public.

So, given the council's history of mob violence and corruption, Furio was not surprised at the reaction of union officials to her protest. Outside the union meeting last summer, Louise claims that Local 79's secretary-treasurer, Daniel Kearney, grabbed some of her leaflets and threw them in her face. A spokesman for Kearney denies the incident. "Nonsense. She handed him the flyer; he ripped it up, and threw it away. That's all."

Two months after her collision with Kearney, Furio was shocked to receive a call from the FBI warning her to back off. Furio claims that Agent Wendy Brouwer, a top member of the FBI's New York team that investigated the MTDC funds' fraud, told her, "'Louise, I don't think you should get the members involved. We don't want the Pete DiNuzzos of the world to get a hold of this." Brouwer refuses to confirm or deny this incident.

Pete DiNuzzo is a longtime member-dissident who is organizing an opposition slate to challenge the Local 79 leadership in a spring election. If he wins, it will be the first time in half a century that a contested election is won by a nonincumbent. But at least one FBI agent seems anxious to maintain the incumbents' tenure. According to Furio, Brouwer not only participated in the investigation that led to the indictments, she has stayed on the case, as a kind of FBI political commissar overseeing council activities. Brouwer refuses to comment on her role in the investigation.

Furio is certain that if she hadn't helped the FBI in the first place, she wouldn't have been on the street leafleting, trying to get her pension rights restored. In May 1992, the Bureau was four years into an investigation that would expose what may be the biggest pension fund rip-off in trade union history: Trust fund employees, trustees, and mobsters helped themselves to nearly $60 million of members' pension, health, and annuity funds.

"For six months, we cooperated with the FBI. Agent Mike Tyms was our main contact." says Furio. "He'd regularly call us at home and even at work. 'Whatever you say will be confidential,' he promised." But Furio thinks Tyms's constant calls to the office were overheard. The trustees—who were later indicted—fired the Furio sisters, claiming economic reasons. "But we were the only supervisory people laid off. I immediately contacted Mike Tyms." Tyms was no help. "For six months, we were there for everybody. After we got fired, nobody knew us."

Furio is also angry that Assistant DirectorCarlo Mellace, who was controller when the money was stolen from members' funds, got a sweetheart deal when he left his union job on December 31, 1998; he was allowed to retire with a full pension. Mellace says that he did pass on information about illegal transactions to his boss, Anthony "Nino" Lanza. But years passed, and neither Mellace nor Lanza ever went to authorities. Mellace's attorney, Kenneth Aronson, says, "If you think that you report this kind of activity to the police, you're naive. That's not the way things work." None of the annuity money was ever recovered.

"When I started this campaign seven years ago, I wanted my job back," says Furio. "And I wanted a pension. But now I have a job [with another union]. And since I handed out the leaflets, I've spoken with John Virga in the pension department. He told me that the denial of my pension was just a typo." Furio doesn't believe it. "A typo? Come on! It's a peace offering. But I reject it. What I care about now is justice. I want them [the trustees] to release the report [about wrongdoing in pension funds]." It is important to Furio that members know they've been ripped off and that the people who stood by when money was stolen were rewarded with jobs and pensions.

"Everything Louise says is true [about past funds' fraud]," says Agent Brouwer in a telephone interview from her Baltimore office. "I can't discuss the case; I would get in trouble. But it's all in the public record anyway. Louise got heat for the fliers because it wasn't clear that what she was talking about was history. [The current leadership] didn't appreciate being attacked by Louise. But I'm sympathetic to her."

What's the next step in Furio's campaign? She says that she's getting a union card for one of the MTDC locals and taking her battle off the sidewalk and into the meeting hall. Certainly, council trustees haven't seen the last of Louise Furio yet.


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