As reported in these pages on several occasions, Local 91 of the Laborers International Union of North America for many years had operated as a rogue criminal enterprise. Any contractor who wanted to build in Niagara County, N.Y. knew the price of completing the project was full compliance with the dictates of the union – unless, of course, they were willing to risk “accidents” such as beatings, death threats and vandalism. Nonunion employees could expect similar treatment. All that suddenly changed in the predawn hours of May 17, 2002, when an FBI raid nabbed 14 men affiliated with the union, including President Mark Congi and Business Manager Michael “Butch” Quarcini. Most defendants have pleaded guilty or have been convicted by a jury for their roles in dozens of violent and destructive incidents. One was acquitted, and another, Quarcini, died in 2003.
Now prosecutors are down to the final four: Mark Congi; former business agent Albert Celeste; steward Paul Bellreng; and training program director Joel Cicero. Now on trial for various racketeering and extortion charges, prosecutors are confident they’ve got the right people. “The reason for these illegal activities was money, power, jobs,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hochul. “Victim after victim will testify they were aware of Local 91’s reputation for violence and destruction.” While only a small portion of the 650-member local was involved in lawbreaking, they large enough in number to create a reign of terror. Union goons, among other things, poured 30 gallons of black goo onto a newly installed floor at a Target store under construction; cut 200 feet of custom fence, taped fireworks to bricks and threw them at the windows of asbestos-removal workers; beat up four tilesetters, sending them to the hospital; and swarmed a truck driver’s vehicle, and broke his windshield and his nose.
A number of now-convicted witnesses are set to finger one person as the mastermind: Mark Congi. But Congi’s attorney, Joel Daniels, thinks his client’s been given a bum rap. He believes “hotheads” within the union, needing no orders from Congi, perpetrated the criminal acts. “These guys lost control,” said Daniels. “Did violence happen? Sure, but not because Mark Congi told anyone to do anything. That’s just the way some of these guys played the game.” It was Quarcini, he added, who called the shots. That said, there’s one potential witness that Congi isn’t too eager to face down: Niagara Falls Mayor Vincenzo Anello. Back in 1999, while as a city councilman, Anello found three punctured tires and other damage to his car after criticizing the union during a council meeting.
The first witness to testify, Thomas Redell, a project supervisor for the L.P. Ciminelli construction firm, already has given damning testimony. He told the federal courtroom that the tires on his truck and on a co-worker’s car were punctured after Redell, in 1995, refused to give a job to the son of Local 91 Vice President Salvatore Bertino. Not long after that, Redell discovered a propane gas line at the construction site had been destroyed. The trial is expected to last six weeks. If convicted, the defendants will likely be in prison for a good deal longer. (Associated Press, 7/18/06; Buffalo News, 7/20/06).