As a New York City power broker, Brian McLaughlin had few equals. He was both a union leader and a politician who played at the highest levels, adept at courting allies to win favors. And he knew how to take care of his people, including members of his original union, Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But in the roughly eight months since the FBI raided his two offices, fears that he was bent have proven true – at least say federal prosecutors in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act indictment. As they say in baseball, “Say it ain’t so.”
McLaughlin, 54, a seven-term Democrat from Queens in the New York State Assembly and since 1995 president of the 400-union, AFL-CIO-chartered New York City Central Labor Council (CLC), was arrested on October 17 on a host of racketeering charges. McLaughlin allegedly lined his pockets with $2.2 million through embezzlement, bribery and kickbacks. He pleaded not guilty before U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis in Manhattan. If he goes to a jury with this one, he’ll have a tough sell. Prosecutors believe they have an airtight case, with more than 100 boxes of documents and other materials in their possession. The FBI already had raided his State Assembly and his CLC offices in the wee hours of March 2. The bust was part of an ongoing investigation into massive bid-rigging of electrical contracts with the City of New York. Though not charged with anything at the time, McLaughlin had been suspected of using his positions to influence the awarding of more than $160 million in active, possibly inflated contracts in exchange for cash and other things of value.
McLaughlin was forced out of his labor council position in September. But that could be the least of his worries right now. According to the now-unsealed 186-page, 44-count criminal RICO indictment, he and several other persons during 1995-2006 engaged in a pattern of racketeering by using money collected for union activities to pay for personal expenses, including credit card bills, motor vehicles, and home improvements. McLaughlin, the only person thus far named in the indictment, allegedly diverted money from funds he controlled or to which he had access. He obtained unlawful payments from street lighting contractors and other companies. In one instance, he and others maintained an interest in, and received hundreds of thousands of dollars from, a company that did business with their respective unions.
McLaughlin, married and a father of five, had a weakness for generosity toward the opposite sex – and the women weren’t necessarily his wife. Feds say that he accepted a $61,000 bribe from a contractor to help pay for an $80,000 Mercedes-Benz for his wife. But there were three other women with whom he had “personal relationships,” the indictment charged, and he was generous with them. During May 1997-October 2003, for example, he wrote 16 separate checks from a union fund totaling $21,900 to an unnamed woman. Potentially even more damaging to McLaughlin’s public credibility is a charge having to do with youths rather than women; he pilfered nearly $100,000 from a bank account belonging to a Queens baseball Little League.
For all intents and purposes, McLaughlin’s career is over. The issue is whether he’ll manage to stay out of prison with some reputation intact. It’s a sad ending for someone who juggled responsibilities and made fast friends. McLaughlin was on good terms with a wide range of political as well as labor leaders, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose 2005 re-election campaign he endorsed. McLaughlin’s attorney, Michael Armstrong, is a former federal and Queens prosecutor whom Bloomberg appointed last year as chairman of the Commission to Combat Police Corruption. He’ll have plenty of work ahead of him. In the meantime, Ed Ott, the Central Labor Council’s interim president, has pledged to institute major reforms within his organization. (Associated Press, 10/17/06; New York Post, 10/18/06; New York Times, 10/19/06; New York Post, 10/27/06; New York Daily News, 10/27/06).