Were the producers of The Sopranos in the courtroom at 100 Centre Street last week when a mob songbird named Sean Richard took the stand? If not, they missed some terrific plot material: a strutting, puffed-up wiseguy with an ego the size of South Orange, as well as some not-so-funny real-life illustrations of the human cost of doing business, Mafia-style, that the HBO series could use to bring it back to earth.
Richard, 39, is a former crown prince in the gang that inspired Tony Soprano’s crew. He is the ex-husband of the daughter of John Riggi, the imprisoned boss of the DeCavalcante crime family, the bumbling New Jersey-based gang that is a Class B auxiliary for New York’s five Cosa Nostra families. Richard was in court to tell about how he allegedly bribed Michael Forde, the man who heads New York’s carpenters’ union, offering him and a top aide $50,000 to look the other way so that Richard’s construction firm could more profitably employ non-union labor in the multimillion-dollar renovation of the Park Central Hotel on Seventh Avenue.
Richard’s allegations, made more than four years ago, are a dagger to the heart of the carpenters’ union leadership. Forde was elected head of the 25,000-member New York District Council of Carpenters in 1999 after his predecessor was convicted on his own corruption charges. Forde has vigorously denied that he took a bribe and says he has pressed reforms in the union and won significant contract raises. If convicted, he will have to give up his post.
Just before noon on Thursday, Richard entered Part 33 of Manhattan Criminal Court, Judge Jeffrey Atlas presiding. He walked with shoulders back and chest high, bedecked in a black double-breasted suit and a bright-red tie. In the witness box, he cupped his hands on the rail before him and assumed an angelic posture and tone of voice, his deep-set eyes darting around the room.
He was raised in the Bronx, he said, and later moved to New Jersey, where he met Sara Riggi in 1996. They married a year later. He first met his new father-in-law on a prison visit with his wife and found the man “a fascinating individual.” He launched a construction business, with Sara, using her illustrious maiden name, as president. His new connections allowed him to gobble up so much work that someone left a ham on his doorstep, a mob warning that he was being a hog.
He then shifted across the river to Manhattan, where, with the backing and partnership of the Luchese crime family, he was allowed to win a rigged bid to renovate the old Park Central, an aging 30-story hotel already renowned in underworld lore as the place where World Series fixer Arnold Rothstein was fatally plugged. At $5 million it was Richard’s biggest job yet, but his profits depended on doing it without paying union-scale wages and benefits.
The job commenced in early March 1998. A few days later, around St. Patrick’s Day, he believed, a pair of carpenters’ officials—Forde, then president of Local 608, the largest of the city’s locals, along with union business agent Martin Devereaux—strolled into the hotel. They were friendly and polite, he said, and suggested that since he was based in New Jersey he should acquire a special contract known as an “international agreement” from the union’s Washington headquarters, one that would allow him to use more of his own New Jersey-based workers. Perceiving that such a contract would provide useful cover for his non-union project, he used one of his father-in-law’s pals to help obtain one. He then instructed a partner, Anthony Rucereto, to set up a meeting with Forde and Devereaux where he could reward them for their advice and pay them to steer clear of the project.
The meeting took place sometime in April at the Hooters restaurant across the street from the hotel. Richard said he gave Rucereto an envelope containing $10,000 to give the officials as a down payment on the bribe. As he told the story, the four men took a table by the window, where they each ordered a beer. He made a special point of recalling a remark by Forde that he “really shouldn’t be having a beer because the union was cracking down on drinking on the job.”
Other than that, however, Richard recalled few specifics. Although he never saw any money change hands, he said, when they left the restaurant Rucereto no longer had the envelope.
A couple of weeks later, Devereaux dispatched a shop steward to the site. He was “a young guy who seemed a little nervous,” Richard said, but who followed orders to stay away from the non-union workers on the upper floors. All went well until the morning of Friday, June 19, 1998, when a group of troubleshooters from the District Council, specially deputized to smoke out non-union jobs, descended on the project, armed with video cameras and walkie-talkies. The group herded all the carpenters on the job into the lobby, where the investigators took names. There were 27 workers present, they later reported, just six of them union members.
Summoned to the site, Forde and Devereaux arrived together. According to testimony later given by Patrick O’Neill, the official who led the raid, Devereaux acknowledged he had been to the job four or five times, but he said he didn’t want anything to do with it because it was being run by “gangster types.”
An irate Richard immediately faxed a letter to the president of the international carpenters’ union, complaining that the raiders had behaved like “storm troopers.” He asked that O’Neill be barred from dealing with his firm, since “we have been dealing with Michael Ford [sic], president of Local 608, [with] whom we are in good standing.”
Grilled on cross-examination by defense attorneys Dino Lombardi and Michael Dowd, Richard admitted that he had embarked on a Soprano-esque orgy of consumption around that time. While his wife was giving birth to two daughters, he spent thousands of dollars on cocaine, gambling, and strippers. He bought a $4,000 bracelet for a girlfriend, and though he recalled the bracelet, he couldn’t be sure of the girlfriend because he was seeing “a couple of women at the time.” He was a regular at the Plaza’s Oak Room, where he consumed cold seafood and “sang a Sinatra tune or two” with the piano player.
The party ended only after he got a formal notice from the district attorney in the late summer of 1999 informing him that detectives had been listening to his cell phone conversations for more than a year. He went to the authorities with an offer: “I can give you names on a silver platter,” he told the D.A. He was placed in the witness protection program, where the government has spent an estimated $500,000 on his needs, according to a figure supplied at the trial by prosecutors.
Richard was followed on the stand by Vincent McIntyre, the nervous shop steward sent to the Park Central. Like Richard, McIntyre is also from the Bronx, but there the similarities ended. In a soft voice, his eyes shyly dropping to the floor between questions, McIntyre explained that he had never been a shop steward, and had received no training for the post before Devereaux sent him to the hotel. On the job, when he tried to go upstairs to see if workers had union cards, some tough men brusquely ordered him to “get back downstairs.” He stayed in the lobby, where he filled out the shop steward reports as best he could, listing the half-dozen workers who had union cards. Devereaux showed up on the job about once a week, but when McIntyre told the business agent about the problems, he testified, Devereaux assured him “he would take care of it,” and to just hold on to the reports for the time being. When O’Neill and the union’s raiders arrived in June, he retrieved the steward reports from his knapsack, where he had stuffed them.
There was no witness protection program for McIntyre, however. A carpenter for eight years, he left the union after the incident and today works as a doorman. The trial continues this week.