Back to the Mob


Last Wednesday, exactly 10 years to the day after federal prosecutors filed a civil racketeering lawsuit aimed at ridding the powerful New York District Council of Carpenters of corruption, the union’s long and tortured relationship with organized crime was once again on public display.

Michael Forde, the newly elected head of the 25,000-member council, was charged with the oldest and most practiced crime in the playbook of corrupt trade unionists: taking bribes from contractors to allow the use of nonunion labor. He had 37 codefendants in the racketeering case brought by Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, including eight alleged mobsters.

Forde’s indictment came after his union spent millions to settle a federal lawsuit, including payments to high-priced, court-appointed monitors, and millions more on lawyers to negotiate a series of reforms to satisfy the government.

Upon his arrest, Forde became the fourth chief of the council since 1980 to be charged with corruption. Ex-council head Theodore Maritas disappeared and was presumed murdered in 1982 while facing federal charges of helping the mob control the city’s drywall industry. Another leader, Paschal McGuinness, was acquitted of federal bribery charges in 1991. Forde’s predecessor, Fred Devine, was convicted in 1998 of stealing union funds.

Between Devine’s reign and Forde’s election, national leaders of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters seized control of the council and placed it in trusteeship. That control was relinquished last year after the international said it had accomplished its goals.

Forde, 45, a cheerful and courteous union man with carrot-colored curly hair and a hefty gut, took office in January. He won the newly created top position of executive secretary treasurer of the District Council in elections required under the union’s consent decree with federal prosecutors.

Forde won office promising strong contracts and a vigorous attack on nonunion construction work. He quickly plunged the union into Democratic politics, loaning the council’s elegant headquarters on Hudson Street to the Al Gore campaign for a victory party for the March 7 presidential primary. Forde beamed as network TV cameras flashed his union’s logo around the country. He welcomed Hillary Clinton there as well and turned his phone banks over to her campaign.

Forde was at an upstate union conference when the call came early on the morning of September 6 from police seeking his arrest. He arranged to peacefully surrender himself at the offices of his lawyer, Brian O’Dwyer.

He was led into court, tieless and flushed of face, wearing a black suit and white shirt. After quietly pleading not guilty before Judge Jeffrey Atlas, he was directed by court officers to take a seat in the jury box, where more than 20 of his codefendants were already glumly seated. He took the third chair from the left in the first row, a seat vacated only minutes earlier by Steven L. Crea, reputed acting boss of the Luchese crime family, who stood accused of coordinating the bribery schemes in which Forde was allegedly ensnared.

According to the indictment, it was while Forde was serving as president of Local 608, the largely Irish American local that covers Manhattan’s West Side and the Bronx, that he agreed to take payoffs from a mob-controlled firm to let it use nonunion workers in the renovation of the Park Central hotel on Seventh Avenue.

Shortly after the hotel project began, however, word of the nonunion labor reached a new team of union members and former law enforcement investigators hired by the national union trustees for the specific purpose of smoking out nonunion contractors.

A visit from the team in June 1998 found 29 nonunion workers at the site. Union business agent Martin Devereaux, in charge of overseeing the contractor, told union investigators he hadn’t reported the contract violations because the firm was “a gangster type.” Devereaux was also indicted last week.

But the national union trustees seemed to lose much of their zeal for reform when confronted with real New York City gangsters. Instead of disciplining Forde and Devereaux, they disbanded their investigative unit, but not before the unit’s directors, former police detective Edward Magnuson and ex-federal labor investigator Harvey Tuerack, told Morgenthau’s office about what they had en-countered at the Park Central.

Arraignments for all the defendants in Forde’s case went late into the evening. While the union leader waited for his release on bail, his attorney spoke in his defense. “Mike Forde is awaiting his day in court when he will be found not guilty,” said O’Dwyer.

A few minutes later, Forde, his black suit jacket flapping, came down the steps of Criminal Court and onto Centre Street, holding a cardboard box of evidence on his shoulder to shield him from waiting TV cameras.