New Jersey Ironworkers, Laborers Business Agents Arrested; Ironworkers Treasurer Admits $500K+ Theft

Ironworkers logoTo be euphemistic about it, Local 45 of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Ironworkers (IAIW) has seen better days. For that matter, so has Laborers International Union of North America Local 592. On November 22, federal law enforcement agents arrested James Kearney Sr., until recently business manager for the Jersey City, N.J. union, for soliciting and receiving cash bribes to allow contractors to hire nonunion workers. Kearney’s son, James Kearney Jr., a former Local 45 secretary-treasurer, pleaded guilty the previous week in federal court in an unrelated case to embezzling more than $560,000 from the union. During that timeline, the international union reportedly placed the local under trustee supervision. In a separate case, the feds on November 22 arrested Patrick Viola, ex-business manager for LIUNA Local 592 in Edgewater, N.J. 

Taking bribes from employers in return for allowing them to hire nonunion labor long has been a common path to personal enrichment for union bosses. Federal law unwittingly encourages it by granting monopoly privileges to unions, such as exclusive representation and (at least in non-Right to Work states) forced-dues contributions as a prerequisite for keeping one’s job. And in response to the prospect of being forced to pay the extra labor costs, certain union-shop contractors may pay union officials money under the table so they (the contractors) can hire nonunion labor on ostensibly union projects. Union officials look the other way as they pocket the money. That’s the way things apparently have worked at Ironworkers Local 45 and Laborers Local 592.

Federal prosecutors allege that James Kearney Sr., 75, a resident of Belleville, N.J. (Essex County) and former business manager for Local 45, along with LIUNA Local 592 ex-Business Manager Patrick Viola, 47, a resident of Edgewater, N.J. (Bergen County), sought and accepted bribes from unionized contractors at several thousand dollars a pop, plus an initiation-and-dues fee, so as to facilitate the hiring of nonunion workers. The feds have a compelling case in no small measure because at least two contractor representatives proved to be cooperating witnesses. The details provide a first-hand look into how union leaders often skirt existing collective bargaining agreements for personal gain.

According to court records, the elder Kearney, while still business manager of the 280-member Ironworkers Local 45, on August 1 of this year met with a business representative of a construction firm that employs Ironworkers members at various project sites in New Jersey. The representative, a government cooperating witness (“CW”), inquired about hiring nonunion workers for a forthcoming project in Hudson County. This unnamed individual also indicated his willingness to buy “union books” for the nonunion employees; i.e., documents indicating the names of workers who belong to the union and when they were admitted. Kearney responded that he would try to obtain books, but added that the supplier would have to be another Ironworkers local. Kearney then entered witness’s car, whereupon that person gave Kearney about $3,000 in cash as “good will.”

Two weeks later, on August 22, the unnamed witness met Kearney inside a Jersey City coffee shop near the Local 45 hiring hall. At this meeting, Kearney said he could obtain union books for certain employees of the company. Each book would run around $5,000, plus a combined initiation and dues fee of $728. He also advised the witness, “Never say it [the books] came from me…please.” Nine days later, on August 31, the pair met again at the hall. At this meeting, the witness provided Kearney with identifying information of two purported company employees, who in fact were federal agents. CW also gave Kearney two blank U.S. Postal Service money orders, each for $728. When CW inquired about the next step, Kearney responded: “You know what it is…cash.” The witness then handed Kearney $10,000 in cash (i.e., $5,000 for each book), and Kearney placed the money in his desk drawer. Finally, on September 2, an unnamed Ironworkers local in Southern New Jersey mailed a receipt for $728 to one of the agents, which eventually was cashed by the local. The U.S. Attorney’s Office by this time believed it had sufficient evidence to prosecute Kearney.

Federal agents also caught Patrick Viola accepting bribes of a similar nature in a separate case. On January 25, 2010, Viola, while still business manager of LIUNA Local 592, met another cooperating witness (“CW2”) who was a representative of a New Jersey-based construction company that had entered into a number of collective bargaining agreements with Laborers locals. In a consensually recording, CW2 said his company was about to begin a project in Bergen County. Viola stated: “Yeah, well you do what you gotta do as far as I’m concerned. You go in there [the project], do it nonunion, you do it nonunion, that’s the end of it.” CW2 implied he would pay Viola the balance of a previous bribe and then said: “I’ll do that one [payment of a bribe to allow the company to hire nonunion labor] in advance because I really can’t afford to have any kinds of problems.” Later during the meeting, CW2 paid Viola approximately $4,000 in cash. Viola stated that he had made a deal with another contractor and that this contractor had failed to pay the full bribe.

By the time of the arrests, Ironworkers Local 45 had another and possibly more expensive problem: Secretary-treasurer James Kearney Jr., son of the business manager, had pleaded guilty on November 14 in Trenton, N.J. federal court to embezzling more than $560,000 in union funds. His motive, one familiar to Union Corruption Update readers, was paying off gambling debt. The younger Kearney, 44, a resident of Bayonne, N.J., served in his position during June 2007-September 2010. Beginning in January 2009, he made unauthorized withdrawals totaling about $471,000 from the union general fund and, additionally, neglected to deposit $90,365 in receipts from member dues and other revenues. When the ruse no longer could be sustained, Kearney admitted his misappropriation to union officials and stepped down. All the money, said a union spokesman, went to cover personal expenses, mainly gambling debts. Kearney’s attorney, Andrew Weinstein, said his client was in the process of getting his life back together and was receiving treatment for gambling addiction. Hopefully, his progress will be substantial come sentencing in February. His father isn’t in much of a position to help.