Four years ago, in May 2002, an FBI predawn raid netted more than a dozen people affiliated with the terror of Niagara County, N.Y., Local 91 of the Laborers International Union of North America. The arrests were the first stage of putting the violent and corrupt leadership of that union out of commission. Prosecutors now have secured convictions – and sooner than expected. On Tuesday, August 1, all four remaining defendants – Mark Congi, Albert Celeste, Paul Bellreng and Joel Cicero – pleaded guilty in federal court. It was only the third week of a trial slated to last about two months. Congi, Celeste and Bellreng, respectively, the union’s president, assistant business agent and steward, admitted to engaging in a racketeering conspiracy; Cicero, Local 91 training director and a member of the powerful Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, pleaded guilty to extortion.
The guilty pleas, for all intents and purposes, end a long reign of intimidation. Not long ago Congi’s lawyer, Joel Daniels, had asserted his client was innocent. Acts of violence, he emphasized, were committed at the behest of the union’s business agent, Michael “Butch” Quarcini, also a defendant in the case until his death in 2003. But in the end, Daniels, the other defense lawyers and their clients read the tea leaves: There was no way out. Virtually everyone who had been indicted either pleaded guilty or had been convicted by a jury, and stood ready to testify for the feds. Witnesses only days into the trial described how union leaders shook down contractors, and threatened and assaulted nonunion workers and their family members. Local 91 bosses and their hired guns, among other things, slashed tires, vandalized construction sites, and bombed an apartment.
Two witnesses in particular, Goran Stevanovich and Peter Petrovic, gave damning testimony. Stevanovich told the court how back in April 1997 at an asbestos-removal site, Local 91 picketers threw steel pipes and other objects at him and co-workers, while shouting threats. In one instance, he said, one of the defendants, Paul Bellreng, asked him, “Do you ever ask yourself where are Alexander and Daniella right now?,” referring Stevanovich’s two young children. Several weeks later, Bellreng said, “Goran, don’t worry. I’m coming to take your head off.” That night, two bricks taped with explosives crashed threw the windows of an apartment where Stevanovich and three others were sleeping. One landed about a foot from his head, causing permanent hearing loss in one ear. Four union members later admitted to involvement in the attack, which they say took place on Congi’s orders. Petrovic, in his testimony, also told how he nearly had been killed in that attack. In addition, he stated that Bellreng told him that his arms and head would be “chopped off” and that his remains would be dumped in a sewer. In separate incidents, he said, Local 91 picketers repeatedly made threats to kill him, co-workers and families; blocked entrances to the work site, which delayed work for hours each day; threw rocks and pieces of metal at nonunion workers, and occasionally drove golf balls at them; and vandalized plastic sheeting that had been installed to keep asbestos from escaping into the work area. Petrovic stated that Bellreng, Celeste and Congi were present during any number of these events; Celeste, in fact, had been traveling in a car following the nonunion workers to the apartment where the bombing took place.
This testimony, plus the pending testimony of former defendants, signaled to defense attorneys that it was time to face the music. “You can attack one (witness), but it’s difficult to attack all of them,” said U.S. Attorney Terrance Flynn. Each felony conviction carries a potential 20-year prison sentence, but as a result of the plea arrangement, prosecutors will ask U.S. District Judge Richard J. Arcara to sentence Congi to 15 years, Celeste and Bellreng to five years, and Cicero to probation. The business climate in Niagara County looks brighter already. (Buffalo News, 7/26/06, 8/1/06; New York Times, 8/2/06).