How much evidence does it take to make a conviction stick? Federal prosecutors in New Jersey probably have asked that question more than once since April 10, when U.S. District Judge William Martini, responding to a motion filed by the defense, tossed out the two convictions of Richard “Buzzy” Dressel, former business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 164. Dressel and Local 164 President John DeBouter had been indicted in November 2012 on eight counts related to the embezzlement of a combined $350,000 in union and apprenticeship funds. A Newark jury in November 2013 convicted Dressel for embezzlement and conspiracy. DeBouter was indefinitely excused from the case after his lawyer experienced a brain aneurysm while questioning a witness. His trial has yet to resume.
Union Corruption Update covered this case last August. Buzzy Dressel, a resident of Montvale (Bergen County), N.J., had served as business agent of the Paramus, N.J.-based IBEW local since 1997. Unfortunately, federal prosecutors charged, he conspired to fleece his union out of nearly $150,000 and its Joint Apprentice Training Fund (JATF) out of more than $200,000. According to the indictment, Dressel, then 63, provided his girlfriend Kathleen Libonati, 54, with union and apprenticeship funds to promote her Ship to Shore catering business. He allegedly instituted a “captive lunch program” in March 2008 requiring the JATF to use Ms. Libonati’s catering service to supply lunches four days a week to about 40 trainees; she received $60,000 salary for her services. In addition, Dressel paid her a generous salary and benefit package as a no-show local office employee and eventually as manager. In addition, Dressel and DeBouter, who served as director of the JATF, demanded that its executive board reimburse the union by $108,196, a sum allegedly representing the amount “mistakenly” paid to Libonati as compensation during March 2008-February 2010.
Dressel married his girlfriend in June 2010. But a different kind of legal entanglement would present itself a couple years later. On November 15, 2012, federal prosecutors, following a Labor Department investigation, announced the arrests and indictments of Dressel and DeBouter. Each pleaded not guilty. Around that time, Ms. Libonati/Mrs. Dressel and Local 164 Treasurer Charles Mattson each pleaded guilty to a minor charge of filing a false medical claim. The trial for Dressel and DeBouter got underway a year later. DeBouter was severed from the trial after his lawyer fainted while questioning a witness and later underwent surgery for a brain aneurysm. Dressel, however, had to go through with his own trial. And last November 26, the federal jury rendered its verdict: guilty on two of eight counts. He had: 1) conspired with DeBouter to embezzle $145,973 in salary and benefits for Libonati during January 2008-March 2010; and 2) embezzled $75,554 in salary and benefits for which Libonati “performed no genuine service to Local 164 or its members” during March 2008-January 2009. The jury acquitted Dressel on the other six counts.
But Jeffrey D. Smith, Dressel’s attorney, had other ideas. At the close of the trial, Smith asked the judge for an acquittal on all counts due to insufficient evidence. Several months later, this past April 10, U.S. District Judge William Martini obliged. As evidence that prosecutors had not proven their case, he pointed out that Libonati was sworn in as a union member and that her catering expenses were disclosed to other union officials. Having reversed the embezzlement conviction, Judge Martini felt he had no choice but to overturn the conspiracy conviction as well. “Since there is no substantive crime here,” he wrote, “Dressel could not agree to commit a substantive crime.” Legal or not, the financial relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Dressel looks like self-dealing from any angle.