For decades Local 210 of the Laborers International Union of North America had been the hobby horse of the Buffalo criminal underworld. Nowhere in organized labor was murder so ingrained as a way of doing business. It was an exaggeration of an international union itself long mired in corruption and violence. A fourth of the more than 200 pages of the draft RICO suit completed by the Justice Department in November 1994 against LIUNA (never filed due to Clinton White House pressure) pertained to crimes committed by Local 210. The Justice Department allowed the local to institute its own internal cleanup program in 1996. Progress was insufficient, and early in 2000 a federal judge appointed a liaison officer, John J. “Jack” McDonnell, to run the operation. Six years later he’s stepping down, having given the union a clean bill of health.
“When I came here on January 24, 2000, I came with the impression that there was widespread corruption – that every member either was in the mob or supported the mob,” said McDonnell, a former FBI special agent. “What I learned was that a handful of corrupt people had been running (Local) 210. The vast majority of members were good, decent people who just wanted to work, but were afraid to speak up about the bad things that were going on.”
Even by Laborers standards, the leadership of Local 210 was a basket case. Payoffs, extortion, and no-show jobs were standard. The Buffalo mob determined who got what kind of work at which projects; if someone didn’t like the arrangements, he could turn up dead. When one union member started giving information to the FBI, he was gunned down in broad daylight by a team of assassins at a construction site. A consultant to a mob-controlled dental clinic that provided services to Local 210 members managed to turn up murdered inside the trunk of a car. Among Buffalo organized crime lords running the union were Joseph Todaro, Jr., identified by the FBI as a ranking mobster though he was never convicted of a felony; Leonard Falzone, later convicted of loansharking; and Frank DiBulco, now in federal prison for arson. Todaro’s father, Joseph “Lead Pipe Joe” Todaro, Sr., himself was a mob legend.
Retribution was merciless. When John Cammilleri, a ranking member of the Buffalo mob, was murdered one night in May 1974, that act would trigger at least 15 additional murders and one disappearance over the next decade. Local 210 business manager Ron Fino, though not a mobster, turned government witness for his own personal safety. The draft RICO report put it this way: “Todaro Sr. has been the boss of the Buffalo La Cosa Nostra family and dictates the affairs of Local 210, despite the fact that he has never held an office or position in the union and has never had an official connection with the union.” Eventually, more than two dozen union members were given the boot.
Despite inevitable skepticism, the main obstacle to honesty in the union – fear of being assaulted or murdered – unmistakably is gone. Members now feel free to offer advice. Acting U.S. Attorney Kathleen Mehltretter said that she believes McDonnell because the allegations of mob intimidation have dried up. “I think the membership there really has something to be proud of,” she said. “There are a small number of members who still want them to return to the old ways, and they’ll have to guard against that. But they revamped their election process, and we hear much better things about the management than we used to hear.” That’s another way of stating the old foreign-policy maxim, “Trust, but verify.” (Buffalo News, 1/26; other sources).