Timing is everything. Two days ago, April 24, Ray C. Ventrone, former business manager of International Brotherhood of Boilermakers Local 154, was charged in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in an information with one count of embezzlement of nearly $1.5 million in funds from the Pittsburgh union and five counts of income tax evasion. He plans to plead guilty. Back in April 2015, various news sources had revealed that Ventrone and possibly other local officers were under investigation for spending irregularities. The charges, the result of a joint FBI, IRS and Labor Department probe, follows revelations earlier this month that IBB officials at Kansas City, Kan. headquarters are continuing to spend recklessly despite similar evidence published five years earlier.
Boilermakers Local 154 represents about 2,000 welders, pipefitters and other construction workers in the Pittsburgh area. Like its parent union, as Union Corruption Update has described, dues-paying members unwittingly subsidize their bosses’ lavish living. Two years ago, Andy Sheehan, a reporter for Pittsburgh CBS television affiliate KDKA, revealed that the local had listed highly questionable expenditures for fiscal years 2012, 2013 and 2014 as “gifts” on Department of Labor annual reporting forms. Union credit and/or debit card purchases included: Best Buy ($27,000); the Apple Store ($48,000); Drum World ($28,800); Tumi Luggage ($19,000); and sunglasses at a Miami, Fla. store ($6,000). Also on the itinerary were Pittsburgh Penguins hockey games (over $20,000) and local restaurant and bar tabs ($70,000). All told, the alleged embezzled union funds totaled $1,499,000. Neither Ventrone nor his successor, John Hughes, would comment on specifics.
There was a larger context here. Based on allegations by anonymous union whistleblowers to Labor Department investigators, federal grand juries in each of 2008, 2009 and 2010 subpoenaed records of the international union’s benefit plans for evidence of trustee violations. Boilermakers officials resisted the effort, either by withholding documents or redacting documents they did provide. Ray Ventrone, now 59, a resident of Pittsburgh, eventually became the prime focus. And there was enough incriminating evidence to trigger his stepping down from his business manager position in June 2015 and eventually the charges against him on Monday. He apparently was as efficient at spending as he was at stealing. For five years, say prosecutors, Ventrone had diverted union funds toward a variety of purposes unrelated to official business. In addition to the excesses cited above, he splurged around $31,000 at the Double Tree Ocean Point in Miami Beach and $34,000 at the Hilton Marco Island Resort and Spa on the Florida Gulf Coast. He also allegedly used Boilermakers funds to buy such items as Louis Vuitton handbags, GoPro cameras, furniture and gym workout equipment. Marty Davis, owner of a suburban Pittsburgh auction where many of the purchased items are on display, puts it this way: “I’ve seen people who bought a lot of stuff, but never anything like this.”
In response to all this, Boilermakers International President Newton Jones issued a stern rebuke:
The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers first became aware of inappropriate financial transactions involving the business manager of Pittsburgh Local 154 several years ago. At that time, the International union forced him from office, placed the lodge under International supervision and notified the appropriate authorities. We have worked closely with these authorities throughout the subsequent criminal investigation. This case represents an extraordinary breach of trust by the local lodge’s top leader. We are confident that the lodge, under new leadership, will work to rebuild the trust on behalf of its membership and the greater Pittsburgh community.
This statement is both proper and timely. Yet it is also a case of the pot calling the kettle black. A lengthy expose published last week in the Kansas City Star, summarized days later by Union Corruption Update, revealed that Jones had been running the union like a patronage machine. Despite falling membership, his total compensation last year exceeded $750,000. Moreover, he and other top officials routinely have put family members and friends on the payroll at lavish salary and benefit levels. Even for headquarters staff, annual pay and other disbursements routinely exceeded $100,000. And reimbursements for spending on conferences, restaurants, sporting events, motor vehicles and other sundry items have been grossly excessive. While not necessarily illegal, such spending has created cynicism among affiliates. If officers and employees at headquarters can spend in grand style, Ventrone must have thought, so can I. It is significant that the Hilton Marco Island Resort and Spa, where he recently spent tens of thousands of dollars, is also the prime out-of-town watering hole for headquarters.
Ray C. Ventrone, father of NFL football players Ross Ventrone (still active) and Ray Ventrone (recently retired), is in a weak position. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he faces up to 30 years in prison and a $1.5 million fine. His strategy appears to be: plead guilty and protest the accusations. “I worked hard for 23 years in the office, and I worked 40 years as a Boilermaker,” he declared in response to the charges. “That stuff was all bought for the good of the union. I knew what I was doing when I bought that stuff. I bought it for the local.” But he also resigned himself to fate: “I’m going to go do my prison time, do what I have to do, and the rest is in the government’s hands.”