Jury Convicts Maritime Union Bosses in Criminal Racketeering Suit

It was the end of the line for Michael and Robert McKay. They’d been the targets of an extensive racketeering probe into their union, the American Maritime Officers. Late Friday afternoon January 5, a federal jury in Broward County, Fla., after just one day of deliberation, rendered its verdict: guilty. The McKay brothers, respectively, AMO president and secretary-treasurer, had been accused by the Justice Department of rigging elections, stealing benefit plan funds and obstructing justice. The jury convicted the pair on a variety of charges, including racketeering conspiracy, mail fraud and record forgery.

Federal prosecutors called forth almost 30 witnesses to the stand during the four-week trial, reviewing thousands of documents. The McKay brothers, whose father, Raymond, had served as president of the 4,000-member Dania Beach, Fla.-based union for 36 years, insisted they’d been framed. That’s what Michael McKay’s lawyer, Neal Sonnett, believed as well. “I’m very, very disappointed,” he said. “I truly believe Michael McKay was innocent. I can’t read the jurors’ minds, but they certainly didn’t have time to go through all of the evidence in the case.” But neither he nor Robert McKay’s lawyer, Fred Haddad, called a single witness to testify. The government’s star witness was David Merriken. As the union’s benefit plan manager during the latter half of the Nineties, he was in a position to see how the McKays used their union as a personal bank. He tipped off prosecutors to the problems at the Maritime Officers, and agreed to wear a wire to work in exchange for a vow of immunity. He wound up secretly taping around 200 hours of conversations, some of which were played at the trial. Prosecutor Robert Tully remarked in closing arguments that none of the persons recorded had any incentive to lie. “You can take what is on the tapes to the bank,” he said.           

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 that as director of AMO’s benefit plans, he stood to be prosecuted. The McKays’ lawyers viewed Merriken, a former longtime friend of the McKays, as nothing more than an inside rat trying to save his own skin. Neal Sonnett in particular termed Merriken a “scheming, diabolical mastermind of criminal activity.” Merriken put it this way after hearing the verdict while working on board a tug barge: “I feel bad that anybody has to go to jail. But these were bad people and I believe they deserve the verdict the jury handed down.” In the end, the jury convicted Michael and Robert McKay, ages 59 and 56, on racketeering conspiracy. They also found Michael McKay guilty on three counts of mail fraud and two record-keeping offenses, though not guilty of embezzling from an employee benefit plan. Robert McKay was convicted for mail fraud, embezzlement and false record-keeping.  

The racketeering convictions each carry a prison sentence of up to 20 years.  In the meantime, someone has to run the union, which represents top workers on commercial vessels.  And despite commanding a certain degree of loyalty among rank and file, the McKay brothers won’t be those people.  During the trial, Robert McKay was voted out of office, while Michael was reelected president by 20 votes.  The latter action is highly unlikely to stand, as federal labor law prohibits convicted felons from holding union office.  The McKays remain free on bond until sentencing March 29.  (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 1/5/07; other sources).