Life in a dual role of politician and union boss has its temptations. People come asking for favors, especially when it comes to contracts. The power broker’s social connections and knowledge of the rules make it all too easy to say “yes” to friends, while making extra money on the side. But being in the sweet seat can lead to situations where the risks outweigh the rewards. Brian M. McLaughlin, president of the New York City Central Labor Council (CLC) and New York State Assemblyman from Queens, has learned the hard way. On Thursday, March 2, FBI agents conducted a dawn raid on each of McLaughlin’s union and Assembly district offices, carting out boxes of computers, books and records. It’s part of an ongoing investigation into massive bid-rigging of City electrical contracts. In the process, the raid made his political ally, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, appear less than astute.
The feds are looking into whether McLaughlin, 53, had received under-the-table payments from a pair of companies that had obtained a combined $162 million in active contracts from the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) to maintain public streetlights and traffic signals. The case hasn’t reached traumatic proportions – yet. McLaughlin was not arrested. Neither were any DOT employees. Moreover, no Central Labor Council officials or members other than McLaughlin were placed under investigation. But that situation may change if evidence points in the direction of bid-rigging for fun and profit. The FBI, significantly, did raid a contractor, the Queens-based Petrocelli Electric Co. If it turns out that McLaughlin awarded inflated contracts, taxpayers have paid a lot more than McLaughlin had collected, and that could be the end of his career.
Brian McLaughlin knows about power. Politicians, CEOs, real estate developers and even Catholic bishops have courted him. A seven-term Democrat in the State Assembly, since 1995 he’s been president of the AFL-CIO-chartered Central Labor Council, an umbrella organization for about 400 unions representing some 1 million workers. That makes him ideally suited to play matchmaker to city officials, union chieftains and contractors. McLaughlin is a union man, a third-generation electrician who rose to become director of the street lamps division of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, a position which he still holds. That rise to the top of the CLC was made possible by his mentor, Harry Van Arsdale, Jr., himself an IBEW Local 3 member who served as the first council president, from 1958 until his death in 1986.
It’s hardly surprising that McLaughlin has received tens of thousands of dollars over the years in campaign contributions from large electrical contractors. Political candidates seeking the labor vote know that an endorsement from McLaughlin carries a lot of weight. He endorsed Mayor Bloomberg in his successful re-election bid last year, and lent support to the mayor’s ultimately unsuccessful proposal to build a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan. The talk around town was that McLaughlin was likely going to be New York’s next mayor.
Any such plans are now on hold, given the ongoing investigation. The focus of the federal probe are several contracts awarded since 1999 to two firms, the aforementioned Petrocelli Electric, and Welsbach Electric, also in Queens. In those contracts, bids were supposed to be sealed in order to remove the likelihood of favoritism. Petrocelli currently holds $92 million in contracts, and Welsbach holds the other $70 million. DOT awards contracts on a borough-by-borough basis. That helped put McLaughlin on the road to corruption, say investigators. Anonymous law enforcement officials assert they gathered evidence through wiretaps and other tools showing that electrical contractors had given him an American Express card and paid the card’s bills.
Mclaughlin is still a free man, but he’s running out of leg room. About two months ago he announced that he would not run for re-election, preferring to devote more time to CLC affairs. McLaughlin denies wrongdoing. “He hasn’t been charged with anything. He believes he will be fully vindicated,” said spokesperson Carolyn Daly. A lot of people close to the case aren’t so optimistic. (New York Times, 3/3/06; New York Sun, 3/3/06; Newsday, 3/4/06; New York Daily News, 3/5/06).