Albany Federal court ruling will decide if Laborers Local 190 business agent Sam Fresina keeps his job


Sunday, May 10, 1998

For years, Sam Fresina quietly but effectively built Laborers Local 190, taking the union out of its corner in the plain brick Labor Temple in Albany into a new sprawling $4 million headquarters in Glenmont.

As his union moved up in the world, its influence -- and Fresina's -- also grew.

Today, Fresina, 53, helps control a political action committee that last year doled out more than $250,000 to politicians across the state, including Gov. George Pataki and Mayor Jerry Jennings.

Fresina, who is Local 190's elected business manager, is more comfortable behind the scenes than in the public eye. But in recent months, Fresina has made headlines amid allegations that the New York State Laborers Political Action Committee, of which he is a member, paid $221,000 to an reputed associate of organized crime.

The controversy so far doesn't seem to have hurt Fresina's relationship with his most notable local political ally.

``He's one of the most level-headed union leaders I've worked with,'' said Jennings. The mayor and his fiance, Maryann Severino, dine occasionally with Fresina and his wife, Kathleen, at spots like Lombardo's and Cafe Italia.

Fresina is part of an organization that has been under close government scrutiny since 1995 because of a federal racketeering investigation.

Last month, a union hearing officer found that Fresina and three other PAC board members violated union ethics rules in making the $221,000 payment in 1996 to Salvatore Lanza, the PAC's former administrator. Lanza had been fired after he was ousted from his own union, the Mason Tenders District Council in New York City, for racketeering and associating with organized crime figures.

Asserting that his client would be vindicated, Fresina's attorney insists the payment was made only to buy out Lanza's contract, rather than risk a lawsuit and damages as high as $1 million if Lanza pursued a case.

But if his appeal in U.S. District Court fails, Fresina under union rules will be forced out of office in the 1,000-member local and the PAC. He would join a number of officials who have been ousted since 1995 from the Laborers Union.

With the appeal and a union election at stake, Fresina did not return repeated calls for comment, and his attorney, Eugene Devine, said his client doesn't want to be interviewed.

Depending on who's talking about him, two distinct pictures emerge of Sam Fresina.

One is of a likable fellow, a family man, a committed but practical union advocate and a civic-minded individual.

Jennings, who has known Fresina since he worked summers as a laborer in the 1960s, calls him ``a regular guy'' who spends his free time enjoying his grandchildren.

But the U.S. Justice Department and foes in his union paint a darker side. Within Laborers Local 190, some say he has carved out a personal fiefdom, ruling it from a $4 million hall he built in Glenmont.

``He wanted to be king,'' said Carmen Francella, who plans a bid for Fresina's post in the local.

Federal officials have depicted Fresina as a player who was hand-picked by organized crime and corrupt union leaders in an attempted takeover of upstate Laborers' unions.

In 1994, Fresina was named in a draft Justice Department complaint of corruption and racketeering within the Laborers International Union of North America. The draft document claimed that union officials and the Buffalo Mafia attempted to take control of all the Laborers unions outside New York City through an upstate district council. Fresina, along with Peter Gerace, son-in-law of reputed Buffalo mob boss Joseph Todaro Sr., were installed as top officers, according to the government document.

The complaint was not acted on after the national Laborers officials agreed to clean up the union.

And Fresina's allies say they don't believe he is mixed up with the mob.

``Sam wasn't involved with none of these people,'' said said Jerry Dunn, a retired Local 190 member, who helped Fresina campaign in 1983. ``The sad part of it is, there's shady spots in the union ... but Sam isn't one of them.''

An Albany native, Fresina seized power in the union in 1983 by unseating Peter T. Mirabile, son of Laborers boss Charles T. Mirabile, whose family had run the local since the 1940s. The Mirabiles had taken Fresina out of the trenches, making him secretary-treasurer. He and his slate swept the elections, promising to improve a $20 million pension fund and more fairly hand out jobs.

Union insiders say Fresina has built the pension fund up to $100 million, despite the loss in the early 1990s of $3 million in a Florida real estate investment that saw a Connecticut union leader convicted of taking bribes. Fresina was not implicated.

In the early 1990s, Fresina pulled Local 190 out of the Labor Temple on Third Street in Albany, moving into the expansive office and training center on Wemple Road in Glenmont. Supporters say it's an example of Fresina's vision; opponents call it a show of his extravagance.

``When I first joined the union, Laborers was a pick-and shovel thing,'' said Jerry Dunn, a retired Local 190 member, who helped Fresina campaign in 1983. At the Labor Temple, Dunn's said, the union's training area was ``just a little hole in the wall.''

Francella calls the union headquarters Fresina's ``castle,'' a place rarely used by rank-and-file members. Francella said the building, with a $1 million office budget, a spacious conference room and a $300,000 gym, was Fresina's attempt to keep up with wealthier unions.

Fresina earns at least $83,000 in salary from the local. But, according to Francella, that is only a fraction of his union earnings. Francella said he has been unable to obtain an accounting of Fresina's pay from the PAC, the international union and other union entities.

Fresina drives a union-leased Lincoln, and lives in a modest condominium on Constitution Drive in Glenmont, a street that includes a banker, a prominent attorney and a hospital board chairman.

``He's the leader of the band, and he tries to hold himself that way,'' Dunn said.

But Angelo Sasso, vice president of the union retirees, said Fresina has cowed people into voicing support because he controls who gets work.

Sasso, who also joined Fresina's campaign for business manager in 1983, said Fresina embittered many old-timers, some of them with pensions of $350 to $400 a month, by requiring them to pay into their health insurance.

``He's trying to make himself look like a saint,'' Sasso said. ``He ain't done nothing for us.''

As a member of the statewide PAC board, Fresina last year helped hand out hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions -- as much as $15,000 a check -- to an array of Democratic and Republican campaigns in the state Senate and Assembly. Republicans Pataki and former Sen. Michael J. Hoblock Jr., and Democrat Comptroller H. Carl McCall, were among those who benefited from the PAC's largess.

In Albany, Fresina was one of Jennings' first major supporters, steering more than $15,000 in Laborers' funds to the mayor's war chest since 1993.

Fresina and his union workers have teamed up with Jennings and the city on a $6 million federally funded cleanup of lead in hundreds of low-income homes. Two of Fresina's cousins work for City Hall, one as Jennings' executive assistant. His son, Samuel, is a firefighter and head of the Albany Permanent Profession Firefighters' Association. Two other children, Anthony and Kelly, work for Local 190.

The respect extends beyond City Hall. In 1992, he received the Golden Lion Award, the Order of the Sons of Italy's highest honor. Past recipients include Mayor Erastus Corning 2nd, Bishop Howard Hubbard and U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty.

Aaron Dare, head of the Albany Urban League, said Fresina stood by his group last year in a dispute with other unions over a minority apprenticeship program that the league created. Fresina took 10 graduates into the union, Dare said, including an ex-convict who has since bought a home and reunited with his daughter.

``While I don't know him on a personal level, he certainly earned my respect,'' said Dare, whose office wall includes a picture of an inner-city ``Midnight Basketball'' team sponsored by Local 190. ``He struck me as a very honest, up-front, if-he-didn't-like-it-you-knew-it straight shooter.''

Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y

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