RICO Trial for Bosses of AMO Union Gets Underway

Michael and Robert McKay have been living on borrowed time. Respectively, president and treasurer-secretary of the American Maritime Officers, the McKay brothers, aged 59 and 56, rigged elections, stole funds, obstructed justice, and orchestrated illegal campaign contributions. At least that’s what the Justice Department has been alleging in a criminal racketeering suit against the pair. Belatedly, the trial began on Tuesday, November 21.


The McKays have an unusually difficult hurdle to clear in order to convince the jury of their innocence: testimony by a longtime friend, now ex-friend, David Merriken, who’d run the union’s employee benefit plans during the latter part of the Nineties. Merriken for nearly a year had worn a hidden wire to work at AMO headquarters in the Broward County, Fla. community of Dania Beach. Federal investigators believed the McKays had been stealing from the 4,000-member national union, buying off local politicians in the process. Merriken was the feds’ inside man. With some 200 taped conversations in their possession, prosecutors are confident the charges will stick in what is expected to be a six-week trial.          


Why did Merriken cooperate? It was a combination of principle and fear. In a separate civil suit filed against the union, Merriken, said his attorney, Robert Harris, didn’t want member dues routed to illegal activities. “He could not sleep at night knowing that,” said Harris.  But Merriken also worried about his own future.  As director of AMO benefit plans, he stood to be prosecuted. Adding to the McKays’ defense woes, four other union officials who earlier pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions are expected to testify for the prosecution. The McKays’ lawyers, Neal Sonnett and Fred Haddad, think the jury will vote to acquit. “Michael McKay has been a good and loyal president of the union,” Sonnett said.  The McKay brothers have defenders within their union. “This is all being instigated by people who did something wrong and have to save themselves by testifying,” said Gus Guzelian, a San Francisco-based member of the union’s executive board who believes most rank-and-file members support the McKays.      


The Maritime Officers union has been the province of the McKay family for most of the years since its founding in 1948 as the Brotherhood of Marine Engineers. Michael and Robert’s father, Raymond McKay, an early organizer, eventually became president and served in that capacity for more than 35 years. Michael McKay succeeded his late father following a contentious election in 1993. He and Merriken had been friends since their teen years in Brooklyn, N.Y. Merriken even served as best man at Michael McKay’s wedding in 1970. McKay hired Merriken in 1995 to help run the union benefit plans, at the time valued at about $1 billion. The following year, Merriken became the plans’ executive director. In his civil suit, Merriken claims he was wrongfully terminated from his post in May 2000, after union officials discovered he’d been working for the government. 

It is more than just union leadership that may be caught in the dragnet. In August and September 1999, while Merriken was secretly taping conversations, union officials were organizing fundraisers for several Broward County Commission candidates, including current Commissioners John Rodstrom and Irene Lieberman, according to court documents. Campaign finance records show that each candidate walked away with about $4,000 in donations, money ostensibly given by union employees and family members, but in reality likely diverted from benefit plans. Rodstrom said he accepted the donations because they “appeared to be within the confines of the law.” Neither he nor any other recipient of AMO political contributions has been charged with any offenses. The McKay brothers pleaded not guilty last year before a federal judge in Ft. Lauderdale, and have been free on $500,000 bond. If convicted, each faces more than 30 years in prison and disqualification from holding union office. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 11/19/06; McClatchy Tribune-News Service, 11/21/06).