Albany Times-Union

Grand Jury Probe of Laborers Ongoing

Albany -- Officials confirm long-dead district council plan may be resurrected, despite federal investigation

Staff writer

July 26, 1998

In 1992, top leaders of the Laborers International Union of North America hatched a plan to strengthen their union's power by creating a district council that would consolidate all the union locals in upstate New York.

The problem was that the district was little more than a front for organized crime, according to the federal government and union officials.

A federal grand jury in Rochester looking into mob influence in the Laborers has made the district council one of its key interests. "There has been a fairly longstanding grand jury in upstate New York,'' confirmed David Roscow, a union spokesman at the Laborers' Washington, D.C., headquarters.

From a union view, a district council could be a potent force in negotiating with companies and governments from Plattsburgh to White Plains, from Buffalo to Albany. But from the mob's standpoint it could dominate small union chapters and control millions of dollars in worker training and pension funds.

As the U.S. Justice Department and union insiders depict it, the district council plan as originally conceived was to dip into the paychecks of some 13,000 laborers who do the most basic work on construction projects, from digging ditches to hauling bricks. The money, 25 cents an hour, according to William Shannon, business manager for the Oswego Laborers local, would easily surpass $3 million a year.

The money would underwrite jobs for mob associates at two training centers, one in Buffalo, the other in Glenmont, on property owned by the Albany-based Laborers Local 190, according to Robert Brown, business manager of the Rochester local, and a 212-page complaint drafted by the Justice Department in 1994 detailing corruption in the union nationwide.

Among those at the center of the original plan was the Albany local business manager Samuel Fresina, according to the draft federal complaint.

According to the draft complaint, "bosses of the Buffalo LCN (La Cosa Nostra) family had long discussed the creation of a ... district council in the areas of New York State outside of New York City, to ensure that the Buffalo LCN family kept control of all (Laborers) activities in upstate New York.''

Fresina, a close friend and supporter of Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, was chosen to head the new district. The president and secretary-treasurer was Peter Gerace, president of the Buffalo local and, the federal draft complaint noted, son-in-law of Joseph Todaro Sr., identified by the U.S. Justice Department as Buffalo's top crime boss.

Fresina declined to comment for this story. He has not spoken publicly about the government's allegations or other problems he has within the union since he and other members of the Laborers state political action committee board were accused late last year of giving union money to a mob associate.

According to Justice and a former union official, the appointments of Fresina and Gerace were ordered by Samuel J. Caivano, the International's vice president from New Jersey and an associate of the DeCavalcante and Genovese crime families, and then-LIUNA president Angelo Fosco, also accused in the federal draft complaint of having mob ties. But ultimately, said the former union official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, it was Joseph Todaro Sr. who approved of Fresina, whom he had met in 1980s.

Several large Laborers locals resisted the arrangement, among them the Rochester union. "Nobody wanted to be tied to Buffalo's mob,'' said Brown, who said he feared his members would have had to pay some $400,000 a year to the council to underwrite mob patronage.

The district plan called for consolidating the training of laborers into two regional centers. One center was in Buffalo, home of LIUNA Local 210, controlled, according to the Justice Department, by the Todaro family, and the other in Glenmont.

Built in several stages, the Glenmont training center and adjoining union hall cost more than $5 million. Fresina's critics, pointing to the huge conference room and the spacious lobby with marble walls and a huge bronze-colored union seal, call it a palace.

Though critical of Fresina's role in the district council, Brown said he doubts Fresina instigated it. Stressing he had no personal knowledge one way or the other of any involvement between Fresina and the Buffalo mob, Brown said his opinion is that, "He just did his job. Sam was just a puppet in all this.''

Although the draft complaint identified Fresina as "an associate of the Buffalo LCN family,'' he was not named as a defendant, nor was he accused of any criminal activity with respect to the district council or otherwise.

After the Justice Department presented to union leaders its 212-page draft complaint detailing the alleged mob influence of the Laborers union across the country, the union agreed to set up an internal but independent process, run by former federal officials from the FBI, U.S. Attorney's office and the Justice Department's organized crime unit. The unit investigates and holds hearings on racketeering, mob association and ethical breaches.

Since then, several dozen leaders have been pushed out nationwide, and Fresina himself is among those facing removal for his role in payments made to a mob associate by the state Laborers political action committee.

According to the internal union action against them, Fresina and other members of the Laborers PAC board breached union ethics when they paid $221,000 in PAC funds in 1996 to Salvatore Lanza, a former official with the Mason Tenders District Council in New York City who was expelled from the union because of association with the Genovese crime family. Lanza was also administrator of the PAC, and was ordered fired from that post, too, by Robert Luskin, the internal union lawyer who prosecutes corruption cases. The board, however, argued that it had to buy out Lanza's contract or face a costly lawsuit.

A hearing officer found the board members guilty of ethical violations of union regulations, which could lead to their removal from office if their appeals fail.

The district council operated for about two years until it was scrapped in 1994, when federal attorneys hit the Laborers with the draft complaint and threatened legal action if the union didn't take steps to purge itself of mob influence.

If the appeal succeeds, however, the district council is likely to resurface, even with the grand jury probe under way. Fresina, according to a knowledgeable source, already is talking with the international's president, Arthur Coia, about resurrecting the district council. Roscow said that, properly done, the council could give the Laborers locals more power, particularly in negotiating contracts.

"We are still trying to put that together,'' confirmed Roscow. "This is what we do. It makes stronger bargaining.''

How the council will be viewed this time is so far uncertain, given the union's 70-year legacy of mob influence. Nationwide, investigations over the past three years have forced out about 70 officials, according to union statistics. Independent elections were held for national union posts for the first time in 1996. Coia himself is facing charges of mob association dating back to the 1980s and early 1990s.

Luskin said the reform process is working, but he acknowledged it will take time to root out mob influence.

"They've got a line of succession that looks like the U.S. Cabinet,'' Luskin said. "Just picking these guys off one at a time is not a guarantee of success long-term.''

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

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