The Buffalo News

 

U.S. PROBING LOCAL 91 OVER ATTACKS

 

DAN HERBECK, News Staff Reporter

August 6, 2000

A federal task force and a grand jury are investigating possible connections between Laborers Local 91 and a series of threats, assaults, vandalism and sabotage incidents at Niagara County construction sites.

The incidents include beatings, bombings, death threats, damage to vehicles and equipment, and rocks hurled through the windows at truck drivers on work sites where Local 91 has had disputes with contractors, non-union workers and members of other unions.

U.S. Attorney Denise E. O'Donnell is coordinating the inquiry, which also involves the FBI, the U.S. Labor Department inspector general's office, State Police, the Niagara County Sheriff's and district attorney's offices, and Niagara Falls Police.

Authorities want to determine whether Local 91 leaders particularly longtime business manager Michael A. "Butch" Quarcini -- had any role in a series of strong-arm incidents that, some believe, have inhibited development in Niagara County.

Among the crimes under investigation are the beating of a carpenter working on the new Niagara Falls High School, a beating and stomping attack at a Wegmans store construction site involving as many as 15 attackers, the bombing of the home of a worker who had a dispute with Local 91, and a $100,000 vandalism spree at a landfill job in the Town of Niagara.

Quarcini denies any involvement with those incidents. He and Paul J. Cambria, attorney for the Niagara Falls-based union, predict the investigation will find nothing more than an aggressive, law-abiding group of union members trying to protect their jobs.

Quarcini said he feels he has been targeted by law enforcement because he is an Italian-American labor leader.

"I don't know why they're investigating. They're not going to find anything because there's nothing there," Quarcini said. "This has been going on for 35 years, since I was first elected. I was elected on a Saturday. On Sunday morning, two FBI agents were at the doorstep of the guy I beat, asking all kinds of questions about me."

Cambria said, "Every time something bad happens at a construction site in Niagara County, the government says, 'Round up the usual suspects.' And they start pointing fingers at the guys from Local 91."

Police officials in Niagara County hope the investigation helps them learn who is behind intimidation tactics that have caused at least one developer to surround his work sites with 8-foot fencing, barbed wire, armed guards and police dogs.

A local contractor took out a $1 million life insurance policy after criticizing Local 91.

"I can't comment on the federal investigation, but I can tell you that our deputies have responded to more picket line problems with Local 91 than any other union -- by far," said Niagara County Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein. "Unions have every right to picket, but it has to be done legally. We've seen cases where people have been threatened or beaten up if they cross a picket line.

"These guys play rough. They even flattened the tires on one of my deputies' cars at a picket site out in Wilson. They threw metal 'stars' under his car while it was moving. The deputy could have been injured."

The sheriff said some developers have told him they are fearful of doing business in Niagara County because of the tactics used by Local 91.

Critics of Quarcini call the 69-year-old labor leader one of the most feared and politically powerful men in Niagara County. Quarcini, his daughter and his son-in-law hold three of the highest-paid positions in the local. Each year, Local 91's political fund sends thousands of dollars in donations to elected officials in the county.

"Butch Quarcini is a very powerful man, both politically and in the business community," Beilein said. "When he makes a call, people pick up the phone."

Niagara County District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III agreed with the sheriff.

"The problem of union violence in Niagara County is a serious concern," Murphy said. "Local 91 seems to be responsible for most of it. Yes, there are investigations going on. People in law enforcement are not intimidated by Butch Quarcini, but are people in the community? I would only say that he seems to be involved in some of the decisions that have led to violence on construction sites."

But supporters say Quarcini and other Local 91 officials have been unfairly branded as thugs because some union members have been involved in construction site altercations with other unions.

"When you have arguments like this on a job site, the blame lies on both sides," Cambria said. "You get one guy yelling at another. The next thing you know, the fists come up. It happens all the time. It's been going on since the beginning of the labor movement, and it'll be going on until the end of time.

"Local 91 is aggressive, but it's a clean union. Any union would be lucky to have a leader who is honest, aggressive and fights for his people like Butch Quarcini. The union has been successful at keeping about 85 percent of the construction projects in Niagara County union projects. There is nothing at all wrong with that."

O'Donnell would only confirm that her office is "conducting an investigation into labor violence in Niagara County." She added that her office would never target a person because he or she was an Italian-American or came from any particular ethnic or racial group.

While she declined to discuss any details of the probe, it was learned that she recently subpoenaed documents from the Local 91 office in Niagara Falls. Investigators hope to use the documents to determine which Local 91 members were taking part in pickets where violence broke out in recent years.

It also was learned that O'Donnell has assigned one of her most aggressive prosecutors, William J. Hochul Jr., to the investigation. Hochul, working with veteran prosecutor Richard Endler, filed embezzlement and conspiracy charges last May against longtime Buffalo union leader Frank Ervolino and his wife, Anna May.

The Ervolinos are accused of stealing $235,000 from the AFL-CIO Hospital and Nursing Home Council. They deny the allegations.

Some of the investigators and prosecutors working on the Local 91 case also worked on a lengthy investigation into Laborers Local 210 in Buffalo. That investigation prompted the international laborers union to take over Local 210 in 1995, pushing a number of reputed mobsters out of the Buffalo local.

There are no allegations that Local 91 is controlled or influenced by organized crime, law enforcement officials said.

"This is different than the Local 210 investigation," said one source familiar with the case. "The Local 91 case is looking at violence and intimidation against contractors, non-union workers and people from other trade unions."

Threats, beatings and sabotage

These incidents and others are under investigation by the task force:

During a 1997 demolition job at the old Niagara Falls water treatment plant on Buffalo Avenue, two small bombs were hurled through a window and exploded at the Town of Niagara home of a worker who had a dispute with Local 91. The worker suffered damage to his hearing. There were also bomb threats at the work site. Local 91 picketed the site.

Six tile setters said they were attacked by as many as 15 men from Local 91 during a dispute over work jurisdiction at a Wegmans supermarket on Military Road in the Town of Niagara. Police said some of the victims were knocked to the ground and stomped during the September 1998 incident.

Four tile setters were injured, and a Local 91 job steward wound up being convicted of disorderly conduct. Witnesses said a large black Lincoln Continental pulled up to the site just before the attack.

A delivery truck driver suffered facial injuries in April 1998 when picketers, allegedly from Local 91, hurled a brick through the window of his vehicle outside a Clarion Hotel on Third Street. Laborers had been picketing the hotel because of the use of non-union workers. Some workers' car tires were also slashed and punctured with spikes during the picketing.

In March 1999, a carpenter working on the new Niagara Falls High School was beaten and injured. Police said members of Local 91 became angry with the carpenter because he was sweeping up a work area, a job they were hired to do.

Four Local 91 members were arrested in 1996 and 1997, during a violent series of pickets over the use of out-of-town workers to renovate the Niagara Falls Air Base. Police said there was vandalism at the site, including rocks thrown at vehicles entering the base.

A Local 91 picketer was arrested in April 1998 after he allegedly threw nails and spikes in the way of cars entering the Niagara Hotel parking lot on Buffalo Avenue. Car windows were broken, and police were also told that picketers spat and shouted racial slurs. The picketers were protesting the use of non-union labor.

A non-union subcontractor was punched in the nose during a June 1996 picket at the Royalton-Hartland Central High School in Middleport.

In September 1997, police said an estimated $100,000 damage was done by vandals at a Town of Niagara landfill where a Las Vegas company had been doing some work with non-union personnel. Vandals used cutting tools to slash up a huge plastic liner -- roughly the size of four football fields which had been placed over the landfill to prevent seepage of contaminants. Car tires were also slashed at the work site, and at a Niagara Falls hotel where some of the non-union workers were staying.

Other incidents are also under investigation, authorities said.

Sources said the task force is apparently not looking at a 1995 controversy involving a former Local 91 vice president who received a 1995 Lincoln Continental as a going-away present when he was sent to prison for shooting his wife in the head.

Labor investigators said the union official received the $34,000 luxury car in 1995 after he pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in connection with the shooting of his wife. The official, Robert Malvestuto, had to resign the vice presidency because he was a convicted felon.

"We looked into that incident, and while it raises questions, it does not appear to be illegal," Joseph S. Wasik, district director of the U.S. Office of Labor Management Standards, said last week. "As long as the union's executive board and membership approved it, it was their right to give him the car."

Union officials explained that the car was given to Malvestuto as a retirement benefit.

Powerful labor leader

Laborers Local 91 has approximately 450 active members and 225 retired members. But to most people in Niagara County who deal with the union, the local has one face -- Michael A. "Butch" Quarcini.

Quarcini, a resident of Lafayette Avenue in the Falls, has been the union's leader, almost without interruption, since 1965.

A graying, round-faced man of average height and weight, he seldom raised his voice as he spoke with a reporter for 90 minutes in Cambria's office on Friday. Quarcini did not deny that he sometimes does raise his voice -- but only in defense of his workers and their contracts.

A Niagara Falls native who spent much of his boyhood in a Catholic orphanage and never finished high school, Quarcini said he has dedicated most of his life to help laborers get fair pay and decent working opportunities.

"I started working as a laborer when I was a teenager. I ran for union office because I didn't like the way laborers were treated out at the work sites,"

Quarcini said. "I remember working on a long, hot day, and asking for a drink of water. The boss said, 'You'll get a drink when the truck comes by.' That was two or three hours later. I asked for a drink on a winter job one time and the boss told me to eat a snowball."

He ran unsuccessfully for four union offices before being elected as Local 91's business manager in 1965. He said he has always stood up for his workers, even if it made him unpopular with contractors, government officials or men in other unions.

Quarcini's detractors -- most of whom insist on anonymity -- call him a blustery, temperamental man who rules with an iron fist. They also say he and his family have gotten wealthy by working for Local 91.

The family makes roughly $250,000 a year from union jobs. Quarcini is business manager, making an annual gross salary of $78,123. His daughter, Cheryl Cicero, is the secretary/treasury at $89,907. Her husband, Joel Cicero, runs a training program for the local at a salary over $80,000. Those numbers are somewhat misleading, because they also include reimbursement for expenses, Cambria said.

Quarcini said he, his daughter and son-in-law work hard for their money, sometimes putting in seven-day work weeks and working up to 14 hours a day.

Government officials in Niagara County say Quarcini is feared by many officeholders and people in the business community. The union hands out thousands of dollars in political donations each year.

The perception that Quarcini is a powerful man was fueled, in part, by developments in a driving-while-intoxicated case against him in September 1993.

Niagara Falls police thought they had an ironclad case when they arrested the union leader on a DWI in the early-morning hours.

The three arresting officers said Quarcini blew an illegal 0.15 on a Breathalyzer test, failed simple balance tests and could not get past "P" while trying to recite the alphabet. He also had a previous DWI conviction on his record.

When the case went to a non-jury trial a year later, the city's chief judge heard all the evidence, dismissed the charge and sealed all records on the case from public view. Judge Anthony J. Certo said the district attorney had failed to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. The judge -- who has since retired -- said his ruling was based on solid legal grounds, but the ruling upset police and prosecutors.

Quarcini declined to comment on the case during an interview with The News.

"If he was such a powerful guy, he wouldn't have been arrested in the first place," Cambria said. "He was completely exonerated."

Quarcini said the news media, over the years, has been quick to criticize Local 91, but has not focused much attention on the union's fund-raising efforts. He said the union runs an annual summer golf tournament that has raised $1 million for childrens' charities since 1993.

"Many of our members donate 5 cents an hour from their paychecks toward charity. We've helped out on different projects for the underprivileged. Our guys went out one time and helped build an elevator for a kid who was in a wheelchair and couldn't get up the stairs," Quarcini said.

"I have heard people say there isn't much development in Niagara County because of Local 91. That just is not true. I think the bigger reason is local government. That's the problem."

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