Working in tandem with Mafia figures and corrupt businessmen, garment union officials were a key component of a shakedown ring that maintained an illegal chokehold on segments of Seventh Avenue, federal investigators have charged.
According to search warrants and wiretap affidavits prepared by FBI and Department of Labor investigators and obtained by the Voice, a major New York union official has been implicated in a criminal probe that has already resulted in the indictment of 12 men on assorted racketeering charges.
Investigators allege that Edgar Romney, executive vice president of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE), participated in a scheme that employed the threat of unionization as a lever to extract payoffs from nonunion firms. Romney, who has not been charged in the ongoing federal probe, worked with a mob-tied lawyer in “targeting” garment center companies for “illegal labor peace payments,” according to one government affidavit.
The attorney, Irwin Schlacter, was indicted in April along with several Mafia members—including Joseph DeFede, the acting boss of the Luchese crime family—on extortion charges. The indictment states that Schlacter and another defendant, Luchese associate Sidney Lieberman—both of whom have pleaded not guilty—”used contacts with Garment Center unions to facilitate such extortion payments.” While this document skirts specifics of the government’s case, the law enforcement affidavits include various allegations against Romney, 55, and other UNITE officials.
As part of the government probe, which began in 1994, investigators last April raided the Seventh Avenue offices of UNITE Local 23-25.Executing a search warrant signed by magistrate Andrew Peck, a dozen agents carted away boxes of union records in search of evidence of “bribery and bribe receiving under the Taft-Hartley Act,” according to court records. Romney headsLocal 23-25, which handles garment center union matters and represents 20,000 workers, in addition to his role with the international union. Local 23-25 is the largest in UNITE, which has about 250,000 members in North America.
Irwin Rochman, a criminal defense lawyer hired by UNITE after the search was conducted, said, “I see not a shred of evidence” that any union officials were involved in “anything of a criminal nature.” Rochman contended that Romney, who has been interviewed twice, and other union officials have “fully cooperated” with investigators and that there “is no evidence that I’m aware of…or they would have indicted him [Romney].” Joseph Bianco, the assistant United States attorney handling the garment center case, declined comment on the government investigation.
In April, Lewis Schiliro, head of the FBI’s New York office, told Women’s Wear Daily that he was hopeful that the first round of indictments in the garment center probe would help other probes. While not naming any specific unions or labor officials, Schiliro said, “if we get the cooperation of some of the individuals involved, and if we can lead [the investigation] in the direction of the union, that’s where it’s going to go.” Rochman said that law enforcement’s suspicions about Romney and UNITE were unfounded and cast an unfair taint on the union.
The government’s allegations about the apparel union are based on information provided by at least five cooperating witnesses and from intercepted telephone calls by Schlacter. According to the affidavits and other court documents, the informants included two wiseguys (Anthony “Gaspipe” Casso and Alphonse “Little Al” D’Arco), a convicted former Local 23-25 business agent (Ed Ko), a convicted (but unnamed) former “Garment Center company owner,” and a “confidential source.”
James Vanderberg, a Department of Labor investigator, used statements from this snitch quintet and snippets of intercepted conversations to establish probable cause to raid Local 23-25. Included in his affidavit supporting the government’s request for a search warrant are a number of allegations regarding Romney and the UNITE local, including:
Casso, who has admitted his involvement in at least 36 murder conspiracies, has now been disowned by his government handlers, who came to the realization that the bloodthirsty hoodlum held back details of some of his criminal escapades. Lieberman, now doing time for an exortion rap involving a Luchese-controlled Teamsters local, became the family’s garment center point man after his successor, a gangster named Michael Pappadio, was whacked for skimming payoff money.
In a 1996 affidavit filed in support of an eavesdropping warrant for Schlacter’s office telephone, FBI agent John Giacalone quoted a source stating that Romney met with Schlacter in the attorney’s suite to “discuss illicit labor peace deals.” The source added that Romney was then “nervous about setting up any new labor peace deals. Apparently, Romney believes that he is the target of a federal investigation involving the Garment Center.” At the time, the federal probe that resulted in April’s indictments was in its second year.
Based on these allegations against Romney, a federal judge agreed to allow the FBI to record conversations—and videotape meetings—between Schlacter and several of his associates, including Romney. But while at least three UNITE officials were recorded by the government bugs, Romney was not recorded on tape. As a result, when investigators petitioned a judge to extend their eavesdropping warrant, they dropped Romney’s name from the list of individuals expected to be intercepted.
Rochman noted that the only UNITE official to be charged in the federal investigation was Ed Ko, a former business agent convicted of receiving a bribe. Shortly after his arrest in early 1996, Ko began secretly cooperating with federal investigators and, as a result, did not disclose his bust to UNITE officials. In September, Romney learned that a Chinese-language newspaper had disclosed Ko’s criminal problems. Confronted about the article, the 53-year-old Ko admitted to union officials that he had pleaded guilty to a felony. He was fired the following day (not surprisingly, one government affidavit describes their source’s departure more kindly: after 12 years of employment, Ko “ended his association with the union”).
Ko’s conviction—not to mention his suspected role as a government informant—was of such concern to Romney and UNITE that the union’s general counsel, Max Zimny, petitioned a federal judge that September to unseal the transcript of Ko’s plea allocution. The minutes, Zimny wrote Judge Denny Chin, were needed to “cleanse [the union’s] ranks of any wrongdoing and to fully protect the interests of the workers they represent.” Chin, though, denied the UNITE request.