Ray Ventrone was resigned to his fate months ago. Now he’s made it official. On September 14, Ventrone, ex-business manager of International Brotherhood of Boilermakers (IBB) Local 154, pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania to one count of embezzling roughly $1.5 million in funds from the Pittsburgh union and one count of tax evasion in the sum of $265,343. He had been charged this April, a couple years after various news outlets had revealed spending irregularities by the international union and Local 154 in particular. Under the plea agreement, prosecutors will seek a prison sentence of three to four years. The actions follow a joint probe by the FBI, the IRS and the Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards and Office of Inspector General.
Union Corruption Update covered this case in April in the larger context of reckless, and on occasion illegal, spending by officials and employees at the Boilermakers union at Kansas City, Kansas headquarters. A lengthy expose in the Kansas City Star, the second such story in recent years, revealed how the IBB for years had taken sybaritic liberties with member dues. Many union officials, led by President Newton Jones, received annual salary, benefit and perk packages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars; Jones’ compensation alone had reached more than $750,000. The union also spent money as aggressively as they made it. Union financial reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Labor revealed exorbitant outlays for personal consumer goods and “business conferences” at distant resorts.
Ray C. Ventrone, 59, a resident of the Pittsburgh area, was part of this pattern. First elected business manager of Boilermakers Local 154 in 1996, he diverted union funds during 2010-15 toward items bearing little or no relationship to union business. An investigation by Pittsburgh CBS-TV affiliate KDKA in 2015 revealed the local had listed many questionable expenditures for fiscal years 2012, 2013 and 2014 on its standard reporting form. They included union credit and debit card purchases at Best Buy, the Apple Store, Drum World and Louis Vuitton, plus Pittsburgh Penguins hockey tickets, restaurant meals, bar tabs, and stays at the Double Tree Ocean Point Resort in Miami Beach and the Hilton Resort and Spa on Marco Island. The Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards and Office of Inspector General painstakingly pieced together all the expenditures, concluding that Ventrone was the culprit. This led to a Justice Department probe and eventually an information count for embezzlement and five information counts for income tax evasion.
According to the government, Ventrone embezzled $1,499,000. In addition, he failed to report more than $265,000 in income on his personal tax returns. He used union funds to buy furniture, gym and nautilus equipment, and musical equipment. He also would hire union members to do home installations. Ventrone had a special affinity for Best Buy, spending a whopping $970,000 in union funds there. While part of that sum went for laptop computers for rank and file, the vast bulk of it went for DVDs and other personal merchandise. “His house was literally lined with Best Buy purchases,” noted Assistant U.S. Attorney Nelson Cohen. He also liked to entertain in high style. In one instance, Ventrone spent about $5,600 in a single evening at the Morton’s Steakhouse in downtown Pittsburgh. Other preferred shopping trips, funded by union dues, were to: The Apple Store ($105,000); Louis Vuitton ($527,000); and Restoration Hardware ($198,000).
The unauthorized expenditures went hand in hand with the loss of oversight. At one time, said Cohen, the local had exercised internal controls. Two signatures, for example, would be required for all union checks. Moreover, the international union would have to give its approval for purchases of at least $5,000. But over time, these provisions were watered down until Ventrone had sole control of all finances. When federal charges came down this past April, he had to give up what he took. The government seized and auctioned off nine truckloads of goods, plus several hundred thousand dollars – and even that wasn’t the whole take. Ventrone at the time had attempted to justify such expenditures as business-related. “The stuff was all bought for the good of the union,” he said. “I knew what I was doing when I bought that stuff. I bought it for the local.” Notwithstanding, he tacitly acknowledged reality: “I’m going to go do my prison time, do what I have to do, and the rest is in the government’s hands.”
When the charges were leveled, IBB leadership issued the following denunciation: “The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers first became aware of inappropriate financial transactions involving the business manager of Pittsburgh Local 154 several years ago,” the union said. “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 those authorities throughout the subsequent criminal investigation.” This pro forma statement was good and necessary, but it also seemed like classic projection. Had headquarters reined in its own spending impulses, perhaps Ray Ventrone would have exhibited more self-control at his end.