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
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
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
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
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
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