The Big Fix
New York City's latest landmark to political corruption is a squat, one-story post office located at 2727 Mermaid Avenue. Here, surrounded by the towers of Coney Island's ghetto projects, stands the headquarters of DC 37 vote fraud.
From 1992 to 1998, elections in the blue-collar division of the 125,000-member municipal workers' union were regularly fixed in this building, by the simplest of methods. Unsuspecting members would put their ballots in sealed envelopes and send them to a post office box in Coney Island. There, Joe DeCanio, ex-president of Highway Workers Local 376, who controlled access to the box, would steam open the envelopes and throw away the members' ballots. Then he'd replace them with ballots expressing his choices or the preferences of DC 37 leaders.
Using this system, says DC 37 whistle blower Mark Rosenthal, DeCanio fixed his own first election in '92; the '98 election of his chosen successor, Bryan O'Neill; and, in 1995, the election of Robert Taylor's entire executive board slate in Motor Vehicle Operators Local 983. (DeCanio was unavailable for comment.) Despite well-documented evidence of mailroom fraud, election protests were perfunctorily dismissed by DC 37 and its parent union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).
What happened in the post office at 2727 Mermaid Avenue is known today not because of any investigation by the union, but because the primary victim of Local 983's fraud, Rosenthal, refused to stay a victim. In 1998, he first won 983's presidency and then provided evidence that helped indict both Taylor, chief beneficiary of the '95 fix, and the fixer, DeCanio.
Last July, Rosenthal made an even more startling discovery in a closet at DC 37's Barclay Street headquarters: the fake ballots from Taylor's 1995 executive board election, all sealed and labeled. The postmarks showed that the fixers had always used the same post office. "They also used the same black-ink pen on all the ballots," says Rosenthal.
The burly, Bronx-accented former park worker dutifully turned over the new evidence to the Manhattan D.A. But DeCanio had already participated in multiple vote frauds, according to Rosenthal, including the mother of them all: the 1995 ratification vote, when DC 37 members "voted" to accept a meager contract from the city. Transferring his tried-and-true steaming and discarding method to the Barclay Street headquarters, DeCanio and top DC 37 officials had thrown out the no votes of members who had overwhelmingly rejected the city's offer of a two-year wage freeze, and replaced them with their own yeses. Thousands of ballots were altered by DeCanio and his crew. A billion dollars in lost wages is a modest estimate of what the massive vote heist cost the members.
DeCanio's sweeping admissions set off investigations that have produced 27 indictments so far, making DC 37 America's most indicted union. The probes toppled Executive Director Stanley Hill and led to the appointment of a trustee, top AFSCME aide Lee Saunders, to oversee the union. Yet, despite all these repercussions, vote fraud hasn't stopped at DC 37, union reformers charge.
The Manhattan D.A.'s office is reportedly considering an investigation of irregularities in the delegate elections that were held this summer to choose international AFSCME vice presidents. And a Voice investigation has uncovered allegations of voter fraud, intimidation, and suppression of members' rights, within the last five months in two DC 37 unions: Housing Authority Clerical Employees Local 957 and School Aides Local 372.
Trustee Saunders owes his elevated position and unaccustomed prominence to the forced resignation of Hill last December. The former executive director had to leave office when two top aides acknowledged that the citywide contract vote had been fixed. Since then, Saunders has been highly effective at projecting the image of a tough sheriff trying to take back Tombstone for the good citizens. He's earned credit for organizing the May 15 demo at City Hall, one of the largest union rallies in recent history. He's targeted honcho abuse of American Express cards, and moved to set up an ethical-practices committee. Placards throughout the Barclay Street building now read, "DC 37's Back! Thank you Lee Saunders!"
But when it comes to vote fraud, the tall, bespectacled 47-year-old's position seems to be "mend it, but don't end it." Saunders has hired Kroll Associates to investigate the citywide contract-ratification scandal. But he has yet to keep his promise to release the report at the end of August. "I don't think August 31 was a date fixed in stone, " insists Chris Policano, a spokesperson for Saunders. "The report's not ready yet. Our primary concern is a thorough inquiry."
Saunders refuses to investigate egregious cases of vote fraud in the locals. Consider the theft of ballots in Local 375, the Civil Service Technical Guild. After being declared the winner in a preliminary count, in a November 1997 contest for president, Roy Commer's victory was overturned when the ballots were literally stolen out of DC 37's locked security office. Hill ruled that the election had to be rerun. Commer won again. But after Hill was forced to resign, Commer demanded that the newly installed trustee investigate who stole the ballots. "Roy, why don't you just forget it?" Commer says Saunders told him. "You won. It's over." Says Policano: "The proper remedy here was a rerun."
The Saunders administration uses the same reasoning in the case of the Local 983 vote fraud. "If Rosenthal is president now," argues Policano, "why should there be investigation of what happened in 1995?" Rosenthal's answer is that staffers still on the payroll in '99 participated in the '95 vote fraud. "Where did the blank ballots come from? They didn't print themselves," says Rosenthal. "Why doesn't the union investigate? Because they're afraid the staffers will give up the big shots on the fifth floor who gave the orders to fix my election." (Policano replies that if Rosenthal has problems with the '95 election, "we invite him to go to the D.A.")
Saunders has publicly promised to allow outside observers to count the votes in future citywide contract-ratification elections. But just this April, he ignored the pleas of candidates who begged him for outside observers in the Housing Authority Local 957 election. That contest allegedly featured physical intimidation and verbal threats by incumbent officers against challengers, as well as mailbox violations and suspect vote totals. Still, Saunders told the petitioners he had to respect the local leaders' autonomy. "The issues you have raised," he wrote in a letter dated April 19, "appear to relate to matters that are internal within Local 957."
Saunders stepped out of the room only minutes before the apparent suppression of members' voting rights. On July 15, the 26,000 members of the school employees' union which leads DC 37 both in indictments (six) and missing funds ($3 million) were supposed to choose delegates to the August 18 convention held to elect AFSCME vice presidents. But the members never got a chance to vote.
Newly elected Local 372 president Veronica Montgomery-Costa stepped to the microphone on the night of July 15 and announced that she and her five-person executive board would automatically become delegates. Then she proclaimed that the remaining delegates would be not be selected by a vote, but simply appointed in the order in which they were nominated. "I can't believe she didn't orchestrate the nominations so that her loyalists got nominated first," observes one DC 37 president.
"If that's what happened, it's a violation of federal law," says Carl Biers, executive director of the Association for Union Democracy, an activist labor group. "You can't take away the members' right to vote. Because it took place in such a large local, the violation invalidates the entire AFSCME vice president vote. The whole election will have to be run over."
Montgomery-Costa did not return phone calls from the Voice. But Santos Crespo, executive vice president of Local 372, defends the process. "Who is making these objections?" he demands to know. "I'll bet you didn't get a call from a member. The membership approved the nominations," he explains.
What Crespo means is that the members voted democratically not to vote. But the AFSCME constitution specifically states that if there is more than one nominee per office, "the election shall be by secret ballot."
Says Arthur Schwartz, who's handled hundreds of candidate protests going back to the 1970s, "In all my experience, I've never seen a union in the entire AFL-CIO where the election process is so consistently crooked as in DC 37. Generally, when my union clients tell me that they think the ballots have been stolen or tampered with, I tell them to calm down, this rarely happens. But in DC 37 it happens all the time."
Even for DC 37, though, the election last April in Housing Authority Clerical Local 957 was a horror show. The results were overturned on appeal. But the contest between Walthene Primus, the president, and Robyn Little, a leading reformer, illustrates how fraud and intimidation remain the pillars of DC 37's power structure.
Here were the steps in the process: first, Primus refused to allow Little's supporters to be present when the ballots were addressed, stuffed, and mailed. Then, according to Little, the members were told to send their ballots to a private mailbox instead of the U.S. Post Office. Next, Primus's team, not the election committee, had a key to the box.
When it finally came time to open the box and count the ballots, the election committee produced a double tally: on June 11 it declared a total of 480 ballots had been received, of which 349 were valid. By June 14, according to Little, it insisted the number had swelled to 623 ballots, of which 492 were valid. You don't have to be a sore loser to be curious where the extra 143 ballots had come from.
"Whatever happened," says Policano, "it was just honest error. The process didn't fail." Indeed, it didn't, but only because Little appealed to an AFSCME judicial panel, which ordered a new election. "I think cc'ing the D.A. helped us with AFSCME," she observes. Says her attorney, Arthur Schwartz, "AFSCME didn't have a choice. We were ready to go to a federal court."
While vote fraud has been common in DC 37, intimidation may be the preferred method of handling elections, if only because it's more efficient. So one of the first phone calls Little says she got in response to a leaflet kicking off her campaign last November was from Deborah Jennings, the union's secretary. "Who do you think you are?" Little says Jennings told her. "You better back off if you know what's good for you!"
"We have Deborah on tape at a meeting of the members," says Little. "Listen to her tone; it was menacing. Then she came over to me. She had these long nails. And she went like this with her hand in my face. I'll never forget it." "We can't help you," was the response to repeated attempts by the Voice to contact Jennings at Local 957 headquarters. "I'm not at liberty to discuss the matter," said president Walthene Primus. It is a federal offense for a union official to threaten a member.
In DC 37's blue-collar division, intimidation has been even more common and more serious. Former Local 983 member Louis Hernandez, now the assistant commissioner of the Department of Transportation, recalls that in 1988, Local 983 president Frank Morelli threatened to have him killed if he didn't give up his electoral challenge. "I had a young daughter at the time," recalls Hernandez. "I feared for my family." After multiple threats, he says, " I actually started carrying a weapon for self-defense. I kept it in my car." The threats played a role in his decision to give up DC 37 politics and go into management. Morelli died in 1994.
Conrad Hunter was another blue-collar division worker who wanted to change DC 37. He worked as a street repairer in Local 983. "There was something wrong. You could never get through to call a rep," Hunter says. "The grievances just piled up, and then they put them in the garbage."
Hunter decided to run for shop steward. "I wanted to find out how to get on the ballot." After days of calling, he was finally able to get President Morelli on the phone. "Who the fuck are you? What do you mean you're running for shop steward? I'll have your fuckin' legs broken," Hunter recalls Morelli yelling at him. "I'll tell you I was scared. I filed a police report. I didn't get no sleep. Every dark alley, I passed I wondered who was there."
Why have voter fraud and candidate intimidation been so prominent in DC 37? Simply because the union is a classic kleptocracy, like Tammany Hall. Political machines resort to crooked elections whenever their survival is threatened. What's at stake is never the interests of constituents. What the kleptocrats are defending is their control of the apparatus that provides them with patronage jobs, perks, stipends, credit cards, travel to exotic places, plus the illicit income from the corrupt schemes that tend to flourish under patronage regimes.
A classic study of the corrupting influence of patronage is provided by the double career of Lifeguard Supervisors union president Peter Stein. Although most of the year he has only a handful of members, Stein gets a full five-days-a-week city paycheck. That's his third check, because he also works full-time for the city as a teacher. And he's paid as a grievance representative by DC 37.
Stein also wears two labor hats: besides being the president of DC 37's Local 508, he's a delegate in the United Federation of Teachers. In that union, where dissent from the leadership is actually allowed, Stein voted against the '95 citywide contract. But in DC 37, he voted for it. Stein did not return phone calls from the Voice.
Besides patronage as an explanation for vote fraud, there are simple business reasons for the practice to persist. Elections are sand in the gears of trade union commerce: voting interferes with buying and selling of offices as well as the sale of members from one local to another.
If, as Mark Rosenthal alleges, Joe DeCanio fixed Robert Taylor's executive board election in 1995, why did he do it? DeCanio made a deal with Taylor that if he performed his steamer routine, he'd get a payoff. Two hundred highway workers would go from Taylor's union to DeCanio's. Rosenthal claims DeCanio produced the fake ballots, but Taylor didn't deliver the workers. DeCanio had more luck with Rudolph Giuliani. After DeCanio made a $7500 contribution to Giuliani's 1997 mayoral campaign, the city transferred the workers into DeCanio's union.
A sale also preempted a vote in the blue- collar division, when Tommy DiNardo, head of the Boiler Room Workers Local 1795, decided to retire in 1993. He sold the local to Morelli, who agreed to pay DiNardo $1200 a month in consultant fees. Officially, the two locals merged, but the 983 members, who had to pay for the merger out of their dues, never got to vote on it.
"That's the way it's worked in blue-collar," says a DC 37 insider. "Each local is a business. When the top guy retires, he sells it to the next guy. The new president signs a legal agreement to hire the departing president as a consultant. That way he's always getting his piece."
But buying and selling union posts is incompatible with holding democratic elections. One or the other practice has to go, and in AFSCME, it's corruption that's triumphed.
"The first time, in 1992," says Ed Bennett, who was twice victimized by DeCanio's Coney Island count,"I thought it would be corrected [by the AFSCME judicial panel] in Washington." His appeal was rejected by the panel, even though he had documented what would become a familiar routine: control of the mailbox by the incumbent, the bogus election committee, the broken seal on the ballot box. Bennett's attorney even got an admission from the incumbents that they took the ballot box home with them.
"But the facts didn't matter," says Bennett. "Our case was just one of many. They rubber-stamped them all." Rosenthal's appeal to AFSCME over his election loss in 1995 would get the same treatment. Concludes Bennett: "Nothing is going to change unless the government steps in."
Or the members step up. Last month, members of Local 1549 gathered at 6 a.m. to picket union headquarters in protest over the union's failure to defend the workers against the excessive hours required by city management. If the protesters outside the building ever connect with the reformers inside, they could shake the chandeliers from Gracie Mansion to Washington, D.C.
Part Three: What Is To Be Done?
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