NYC Carpenters Chieftain Indicted, Fired; Feds Expand Racketeering Probe

Michael FordeThe last two times out, Michael Forde was a lucky man. His luck has appeared to run out. On August 5, the 54-year-old Forde, longtime executive secretary-treasurer of the New York City District Council of Carpenters and Joiners, was arraigned in Manhattan federal court after being slapped with a 29-count indictment for taking bribes from contractors in return for helping them avoid making required contributions to union benefit funds, among other offenses. Five days later he was fired from his post. His criminal case will move on, however. He and nine other defendants have pleaded not guilty to various racketeering charges following a lengthy federal and city joint probe. It’s not the first time that officials of the mob-connected union have been accused of selling out rank and file for personal gain. 

The District Council of Carpenters is a major force in New York City-area organized labor. Consisting of 11 local affiliates representing roughly 25,000 members, the union has provided labor for numerous major construction projects. It’s also provided backing for incumbent political candidates, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. The union also has a past. Back in 1990, state prosecutors brought forth a civil racketeering suit against the council, a case that led to a consent decree in 1994 and a court-appointed overseer in 2002. Then in September 2000, Forde, who had headed United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Local 608 prior to his election as council chief in 1999, was indicted by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office along with 10 other union bosses and more than two dozen other persons on various bribery, bid-rigging and racketeering charges. The district council and its local affiliates, said prosecutors, had diverted millions of dollars to the Lucchese crime family and associates, or what amounted to a 5 percent “mob tax.” Twice Forde would be tried. The first time he was convicted, but his lawyers convinced the judge to throw the case out on grounds of juror misconduct. The second time he was acquitted at trial. But the indictments also produced guilty pleas, most significantly, from acting Lucchese crime boss Steven Crea.

At the time of the latest indictment’s unsealing, Forde, a resident of Woodside, N.Y., had been attending a union conference in Nova Scotia. Upon his return to New York, he surrendered to FBI and Labor Department agents. Prosecutors say that Forde over the years received about $1 million in contractor bribes in return for allowing the builders to pay union members below-union wages without benefits; hire nonunion workers, including illegal aliens; and skip $10 million or more contributions to union pension, health care and other benefit funds as mandated by collective bargaining agreements. As with the previous criminal case, there’s a mob angle here. One of the defendants, Joseph Olivieri, a union benefit plan trustee affiliated with the Association of Wall, Ceiling and Carpentry Industries of New York, has a long history of ties to New York’s Genovese crime family. Though the indictment does not cite the crime syndicate as wielding influence, law enforcement officials say their investigation is continuing.

Prosecutors sound confident. “Instead of protecting the financial interests of union members and their families, corrupt union officials and the contractors who bribe them are charged with betraying the carpenters’ union and its benefit funds to enrich themselves,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Lev Dassin. Gary Rothman, a lawyer for the district council, says the evidence doesn’t warrant a conclusion. “We understand that the charges are serious, but we also believe in the presumption of innocence and we will have a further statement as the situation becomes clearer,” he said. Michael Forde’s personal lawyer, Andrew Lankler, declined to comment. If Forde does beat the rap on corruption charges, he’s still out of a job in the meantime. And he’s got something else to worry about, too. When he got back from that union conference in Canada, he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana.