Standing before a judge in Manhattan federal court on Friday, November 19, Michael Forde learned the price of high living and the crime that made it possible: 11 years in prison. For some members of the organization he once headed, the New York District Council of Carpenters and Joiners, that isn’t long enough. Forde had pleaded guilty to racketeering, bribery and perjury in late July in connection with taking as much as $1 million in illegal contractor bribes and skimming many millions more from union benefit funds. The Justice Department uncovered the scheme as part of a probe that recently netted guilty pleas from eight persons and the jury conviction of Genovese crime family-linked contractor Joseph Olivieri. In addition to serving time, Forde must forfeit $100,000 in cash, pay a $50,000 fine, and pay restitution that union officials put at $18 million.
The Carpenters district council, representing roughly 25,000 workers in 11 local unions, is the largest construction labor council in the New York City area. Under Forde, it also has been a political force, having endorsed New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and providing around $3 million in overall campaign donations. But most of all, it’s known for corruption. The council and Michael Forde’s home base, Carpenters Local 608, have been the focus of state and federal prosecutors for more than 20 years. Forde’s two predecessors at the council, in fact, had gone to prison. His father, Martin Forde, a former Local 608 business agent, was indicted in 1987 on a bribery charge. Found guilty in 1990, his sentence was suspended incumbent upon his retirement from union activity. He has continued to exert influence through his son. This may not have been a good idea given that New York State prosecutors, also in 1990, filed a civil racketeering suit against the council, obtaining a settlement four years later.
Michael Forde, now 56, a resident of Woodside, N.Y., ran as a reformer in his successful 1999 election campaign to head the New York District Council of Carpenters. It wasn’t a hard platform on which to run. With the council set to come out of a supervised trusteeship, Forde, who until then had been president and business manager of Local 608, vowed to clean things up. But reality didn’t match rhetoric. Federal prosecutors in September 2000 charged Forde and more than three dozen other individuals, including Lucchese crime family acting boss Steven Crea. Forde was indicted for accepting a $50,000 bribe from a contractor to pay employees nonunion wages for work done at the Park Central Hotel in Manhattan. He was convicted by trial in 2004 but his lawyers convinced the judge to set aside the verdict on grounds of jury misconduct. His belated second trial, held in 2008, resulted in acquittal. The inability of prosecutors to secure a conviction merely emboldened Forde to use his union as a vehicle for self-enrichment.
The feds would try a third time. The evidence, especially as they had lined up admitted corrupt contractor James Murray to serve as their star witness that Forde was raking in a fortune through sweetheart deals. Prosecutors alleged that contractors, after bribing Forde to look the other way, paid employees nonunion wages in cash and allowed Forde and nine other defendants, including a pair of Local 608 business agents, to fleece union benefit funds of more than $10 million in scheduled contributions. On August 5, 2009, Forde was arrested following a 29-count grand jury indictment. After initially vowing with lawyers to fight the charges, he pled guilty nearly a year later.
As good as Michael Forde was at generating illegal revenue, he may have been even better at spending it. His annual salary, which last year reached $273,000, apparently wasn’t sufficient to support his kind of lifestyle. Often accompanied by an entourage, he used his union credit card for meals at high-end restaurants and vacations to Hawaii, Palm Beach, San Juan and other sunny destinations. Among the expenses: $2,619 for a one-night stay in 2006 at the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla.; $3,918 for dinner for 15 at Manhattan’s Il Molino on “Secretary’s Day” in 2007; $1,226 for dinner for six in 2008 at a San Juan, Puerto Rico steakhouse; and $5,072 for first-class airfare tickets to Hawaii in 2008.
Forde also used union funds to feed his prodigious taste for drugs, especially cocaine. Often, he hosted coke-fueled parties at union headquarters. The party eventually ended. Upon arrest, he tested positive for cocaine and marijuana. His failure to show up for a drug test, in fact, is what prompted the Carpenters district council board to dismiss him five days after. Forde’s drug problem led directly to union finances. He made his “personal cocaine supplier,” Joseph Wing, assistant director of the union’s training school, Labor Technical College of the District Council. Wing, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Zornberg, accompanied Forde on “many trips and expensive dinners.”
Forde’s exploits did not endear him to his union brothers, who now must find a way to replenish benefit accounts and cover his estimated $500,000 in legal bills. Dozens of angry rank and file attended the sentencing hearing. One Local 608 member, Christopher Silva, put it this way afterward: “Eleven years is fitting but I’d have liked to see more. The devastation he caused will be felt for many years.” U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero waxed biblical in his admonishment, calling the defendant “downright wicked” who “operated on the frontiers of depravity.” A contrite Forde responded: “I take full responsibility for my actions. I betrayed trust. I am deeply ashamed for my behavior.” Michael Forde’s union career may be over, but he has the consolation of remaining eligible to collect a pension of at least $128,000 a year. But it’s not likely he’ll get to keep the money.