Village Voice’s Tom Robbins Provides Color to NYC Local 15

For more than 25 years there hasn’t been a big construction job in this city where Tommy Maguire, leader of the Operating Engineers union, wasn’t present for the photo op.  Recently, he was there at ground zero, glowingly describing the dedication of his members as they disinterred the wreckage.


Then last month, shortly before his 69th birthday, Maguire was compelled to attend a different kind of event, this one in Brooklyn federal court, where he stood glumly alongside three other union officers as he admitted to taking bribes from contractors in a scheme that had helped to vastly inflate the cost of construction in this town. Going back to 1989, he acknowledged in court, he had accepted payoffs, sometimes in the form of Christmas gifts, from at least two contractors.


The conviction of Thomas P. Maguire was greeted as just another ho-hum labor corruption tale in a city long grown inured to them.  But Maguire is several notches above the usual union cheat. Until his resignation last year, he was the leader of the 6,000 engineers who run the city’s cranes, backhoes, bulldozers, and hoists–the workers who make up a true aristocracy of labor on construction sites. He headed his union’s powerful statewide organization, and ran its wealthy political action fund, which gave hundreds of thousands of dollars annually to favored pols.


Had they gone to trial rather than pled guilty, Maguire and his cohorts would have been shown to have taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from many of New York’s largest contractors, prosecutors charged.  Most of the bribe-passing was done through two former business agents, informants claimed. They were Maguire’s son-in-law, Thomas McNamara, and Daniel Murphy, both of whom pled guilty alongside Maguire.


Theft and vandalism were also fair tactics. Volpicelli claimed that Murphy had him steal things from construction sites, including a chainsaw, a generator, and a chop saw. Once, incredibly, he even stole a backhoe.  When Laquila Construction ran afoul of the union officials, Murphy allegedly had Volpicelli disable water pumps at subway jobs in Long Island City and Brooklyn, causing flooding at both sites.  All this activity left the leadership too busy to protect the rank and file. Volpicelli told prosecutors that when he told Murphy that contractors at a Delta Airlines job site were violating the contract, Murphy ignored him.


Even union books–the emblem of membership entitling holders to wages of up to $45 per hour–had a price tag on them, the informants said.  At Murphy’s instructions, one book was sold for $12,000, according to a union member who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Maguire was alleged to have received a cut from the sale of another book, sold to an electronics store manager.


Official union positions were also allegedly bought and sold.  John Ruggiero, the former Local 15 business agent, told prosecutors that he was told by Murphy that Maguire had paid $80,000 to the president of his international union for the privilege of becoming an international vice president. In addition, Maguire regularly gave money to the international president in order to “influence his decisions regarding Local 15 matters.”  A spokesperson for national Operating Engineers president Frank Hanley, who has held office since 1989, said the union was unaware of the allegations.


The third player in the city’s construction ballet–the mob–has been only slightly, if grudgingly, more talkative. So far 21 defendants have pled guilty in the Brooklyn Operating Engineers case. Among them have been the underboss of the Colombo crime family, Jackie DeRoss, who held membership in the Operating Engineers union, and a half-dozen mob associates and soldiers, including DeRoss’s sons John and Jamie, who also had their own union books and were occasionally placed at job sites where they did little work, prosecutors said.


Maguire’s supporters say he kept far away from the mob, and had no direct dealings with it. And while his lawyer, Michael Considine, declined to comment for the story, citing his client’s pending sentencing, letters he filed in court before the guilty plea accuse the government of using the mob accusations as a way to gain a tactical advantage in the case.


But the informants claim that Maguire simply used a buffer in his dealings with the mob, delegating a member named Anthony Polito as a go-between with the wiseguys.  Polito, now imprisoned, held an important and lucrative union post as a maintenance foreman, which meant that his work duties were light, but he was designated by Maguire to oversee each job site where members were assigned.


Investigators managed to place a bug in the SUV Polito used to prowl the city, and picked him up in conversation with Ralph Garguilo, another longtime mob associate who had also served as a kind of buffer between the union officials and the mob. Garguilo, who later decided to cooperate with the government, was tape-recorded in a discussion in which Polito talked about how Maguire had made him a millionaire. In return, Polito “protected” Maguire from the mob.


At his sentencing in February, Maguire faces up to five years in prison. [Village Voice, 12/21/04]