Union carpenters built the soaring federal courthouse on Pearl Street near Chinatown, and last week, a few of them were back to see justice done at their old job site. “We did nice work,” said Billy Walsh, running his hand along a smooth maple rail separating the gallery from the business end of a courtroom on the ninth floor.
If only his union had done as well. Walsh, a carpenter for 24 years, was awaiting a hearing in the case of U.S. v. District Council of New York City of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. While he and his fellow nail-bangers were building the new courthouse floor by floor in the early ’90s, federal attorneys were building a case against their union, defendant by defendant. Their civil racketeering complaint alleged that the council was under the mob’s thumb, its leaders routinely shortchanging their members in exchange for bribes from employers, many of whom took their marching orders from the Mafia.
The complaint cited a laundry list of past corruption and violence, including a former council president who disappeared in 1982 while on trial, his wallet found floating near the Throgs Neck Bridge. The lawsuit asked that an outside monitor be named to ride herd on the union. The goal, the government said, was to return democracy to the members, purge corrupt officials, and shine a spotlight bright enough to keep the mob at bay.
That was in the fall of 1990. On Thursday afternoon, Walsh and a half-dozen other carpenters watched as District Judge Charles Haight considered the government’s latest request for yet another monitor—the fifth so far—to try again to fix the council. This is the mob version of Dickens’s Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, and Haight has had it on his docket from the start. “I have to say it is a little disappointing, a little sad,” the judge said. “The original action in this case was filed 20 years ago, and here we are still trying to get our arms around continued corruption and dishonest people in the District Council.” The judge talked about how hard so many, including himself, had worked with little to show for it. “It has been something of a disgrace,” he said.
There is plenty of that to go around. As he spoke, a contractor named Finbar O’Neill was at that very moment standing before a different judge upstairs in Courtroom 20B, admitting that he had spent years bribing Michael Forde, who ran the District Council for 10 years until his own indictment last summer. The bribes, O’Neill said, were in exchange for a free hand to cheat Forde’s members out of the wages and benefits due them under their contract. “This had the result,” O’Neill explained, “of substantial cost savings.”
O’Neill was once one of the city’s most successful drywall contractors. He built offices, schools, and fashionable restaurants, while shelling out five-figure donations to favored politicians. Along the way, he became friendly with Forde, the jowly former head of the city’s largest carpenters local. Under rules passed after the government’s lawsuit, Forde was elected by popular vote in 2000 to head the District Council. He was re-elected twice more, if that can count toward a reform achievement.
O’Neill said he began paying Forde in 1994, doling out $5,000 to $7,500 three or four times a year. The chain went all the way to the top. In the late 1990s, O’Neill was picked up on police wiretaps regularly consulting with a soldier in the Lucchese crime family. They spoke in Sopranos-style code: “How did we do on that other thing?” O’Neill is heard asking in a 1998 exchange. “When I see you, I’ll talk to you,” his mob liaison responds.
The builder told the judge that he quit the business in 1999 but became “a mentor of sorts” to a contractor named James Murray, who owned a large company called On Par. The tutoring included a how-to on bribery. O’Neill said that between 1997 and 2004, he delivered more than $100,000 in cash to Forde on Murray’s behalf.
The money was for the same insurance policy he’d purchased for himself: “To avoid scrutiny and sanctions by the carpenters union,” said O’Neill, and to “save substantial sums of money by hiring nonunion labor and paying sub-union wages.”
After his election, Forde brought Murray around to meet his business agents at the District Council. “Guys, this is James Murray,” Forde announced, according to one who heard the speech. “He’s an up-and-coming contractor, and I want you to help him any way you can.”
Murray’s education also included his own introduction to the mob. He grew close to Joseph “Rudy” Olivieri, director of the city’s largest contractors’ association, the Wall-Ceiling & Carpentry Industries of New York. Murray loaned Olivieri $730,000, according to prosecutors, and gave him lucrative work on his projects. Olivieri took his own orders from mob higher-ups. In 2000, an FBI agent sitting in a Bronx bar overheard Olivieri and Louis Moscatiello, a Genovese crime family official charged with overseeing his group’s construction rackets: “Forde wants somebody,” Moscatiello said, in apparent reference to the union chief. “Get it done as fast as possible.”
Meanwhile, Forde regularly assured Judge Haight that the council was doing everything it could to stamp out corruption. “No union does as much as the District Council,” his representatives defiantly claimed over and over. But when monitor number three, a former federal prosecutor named Walter Mack, reported that Murray and other contractors were cheating the union out of millions in wages and benefit payments right under the nose of Forde’s shop stewards, the council leader grew incensed. He dispatched his second-in-command, a former dockbuilder named Pete Thomassen, to tell the judge that Mack was too difficult and costly and that the council wanted to exercise its right to remove him. Haight agreed, and Mack was replaced.
Last August, the feds indicted Olivieri, O’Neill, and Forde. He was the fourth council chief in a row to be charged with corruption. Most of the evidence came from Murray, who cut his own deal after he was caught stealing more than $10 million from the union. To get to Murray, the feds had simply followed the leads provided by Walter Mack’s original investigation, the one Forde had tried to shut down.
Things were even more out of control at the union than anyone thought. At his arrest, Forde flunked the drug test, testing positive for coke and pot. After the international union ordered the council into trusteeship, it found rampant drug use. One council official shaved his head, his eyebrows, even his eyelashes in an apparent effort to beat new mandatory tests. Thomassen, Forde’s number two, resigned this month, amid evidence that tens of thousands of dollars in dues money went for posh restaurants and resorts.
In Judge Haight’s courtroom on Thursday, assistant U.S. attorney Ben Torrance rose to ask the judge to sign off on the latest watchdog for the union, a former state organized crime prosecutor named Dennis Walsh. This Walsh is no relation to Billy the carpenter, but he knows the territory, having spent several years in the mid ’90s assisting monitor number two when he won the admiration of many rank-and-filers.
Haight had Walsh detail his experience. Then he asked the carpenters in the gallery if they wanted to say anything. Billy Walsh passed, but beside him, a member named Mike Bilello, a carpenter since 1975, rose and stepped past the maple rail to speak at the podium.
“I think this is our last chance,” said Bilello. “We’ve been going through this for 20 years. We need something drastic.”