Carmelo “Joe” Sita spent most of this decade waiting out a prison sentence that might be avoidable. But his day of reckoning came anyway. On October 26, Sita, former longtime benefits manager for the Hudson County, New Jersey District Council of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), was sentenced in Newark federal court to one year and nine months in prison for embezzling more than $2 million from the union. Arrested almost eight years ago, he pleaded guilty in early 2005. “I do believe that Mr. Sita, for whatever reason, thought the union was his own little bank,” said U.S. District Judge Dennis M. Cavanaugh at sentencing. It was a belief borne out by evidence.
Sita, now 66, spent 22 years administering benefit funds for the Jersey City-based Hudson County Laborers District Council, which represents LIUNA Locals 21, 31, 202 and 325. Unfortunately for dues-paying members, a large portion of the plans went toward gracious living – his own. Federal prosecutors had charged in a 59-count indictment that during January 1995-March 1999, Sita siphoned off more than $2 million from a combined eight separate benefit funds. He used the money to fund sybaritic pleasures such as a Martha’s Vineyard vacation home, mortgage payments on a West Side Manhattan apartment co-op, a luxury motor boat, motor vehicle payments, and country club dues. He also used funds to pay for credit card debt, personal income taxes, and unauthorized political and charitable contributions. To cover up the thefts, he entered false information in union financial records required for submission to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Federal agents arrested him in December 2001 at his home in Mountainside, N.J., where they also found $1,062,787 in cash.
Sita, who resigned from his post in 1999 following 22 years of service, initially pleaded not guilty. His attorney, David A. Ruhnke, stated that the indictment “represents a gross misunderstanding of how matters of compensation were handled in this union.” Neither the Labor Department nor the Justice Department agreed. The DOL filed a civil suit against Sita and various labor officials, accountants and attorneys, Within months, they reached a confidential out-of-court settlement. And the Justice Department proceeded with a criminal suit. On January 7, 2005, Sita pleaded guilty to conspiracy to embezzle. He was scheduled for sentencing that April 11. But he and his lawyer delayed the inevitable. Ruhnke argued for a lighter sentence than the 21 months he would receive, citing the fact that his crimes had occurred back in the Nineties. But there is a self-fulfilling prophecy here, since it was he and his client who created the “delay” in the first place. In addition his sentence, Sita was ordered to pay $850,000 in restitution, which he already has done. Justice Department attorneys have collected money from the sale of his homes and boat. Sita, who suffers from health problems, for the time being lives in a studio apartment in Los Angeles.