Buffalo-Area Operating Engineers Ex-President Sentenced for Racketeering

operating-engineers-logoIt took years, but Mark Kirsch finally reaped what he sowed. On August 31, Kirsch, former president and business manager of International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) Local 17, was sentenced in U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York to three years in prison and ordered to pay $184,000 in restitution to two contractors for his role in running the Buffalo-area union as a criminal enterprise. For about 10 years, Kirsch and certain union members and business agents vandalized nonunion sites. And they didn’t hesitate to assault or threaten workers at these sites. Kirsch had been convicted by a jury in March 2014, a trial that saw four other Local 17 members acquitted. The case was made possible by a five-year probe by the FBI, the Labor Department and the New York State Police.

Union Corruption Update has described this case more than once. Federal and state agents arrested about a dozen IUOE Local 17 leaders and members during predawn hours of April 8, 2008 and charged them with extortion and racketeering. For a decade, the Lake View (Erie County), N.Y.-based union inflicted fear and retribution upon various nonunion Buffalo-area contractors and crew members. Encouraged by their bosses, union members engaged in threats or acts of property destruction and violence. Any nonunion construction site was fair game. Facilitating this campaign was the union’s access to personal information through the data base of the New York Department of Motor Vehicles. The feds eventually became aware of all this. And a half-decade of investigation yielded arrests and a 62-page indictment detailing 75 criminal acts during the period 1997-2007. Though defense lawyers praised their clients as local folk heroes, the evidence suggested a tough road ahead swaying even a partisan jury.

Mark Kirsch, by various accounts, not only was aware of the terror campaign, but approved it and likely even took part in it. And there were witnesses ready to testify to that effect. Seven of the 12 defendants named in the original and two superseding indictments pleaded guilty. Kirsch and four other defendants pleaded not guilty. The trial for the latter group began in January 2014 and lasted eight weeks. During testimony, Kirsch proclaimed his innocence. He said that he was aware of only five instances of vandalism, and in those he disciplined the perpetrators. Dozens of union members, nonunion employees and contractors, however, in sworn statements, contradicted these claims. In the end, the jury convicted Kirsch, but acquitted union business agents Gerald Bove and Thomas Freedenburg, and members Michael Caggiano and Kenneth Edbauer. Kirsch had 14 days in which to file an appeal, but did not do so. Operating Engineers Local 17 has been under new management these past several years. The sentencing of Kirsch puts to bed the final piece of unfinished business.