(illustration: David Hollenback)
New York City's latest landmark to political
corruption is a squat, one-story post office located at 2727 Mermaid
Avenue. Here, surrounded by the towers of Coney Island's ghetto
projects, stands the headquarters of DC 37 vote fraud.
From 1992 to 1998, elections in the blue-collar
division of the 125,000-member municipal workers' union were regularly
fixed in this building, by the simplest of methods. Unsuspecting
members would put their ballots in sealed envelopes and send them
to a post office box in Coney Island. There, Joe DeCanio, ex-president
of Highway Workers Local 376, who controlled access to the box,
would steam open the envelopes and throw away the members' ballots.
Then he'd replace them with ballots expressing his choices or
the preferences of DC 37 leaders.
Using this system, says DC 37 whistle blower
Mark Rosenthal, DeCanio fixed his own first election in '92; the
'98 election of his chosen successor, Bryan O'Neill; and, in 1995,
the election of Robert Taylor's entire executive board slate in
Motor Vehicle Operators Local 983. (DeCanio was unavailable for
comment.) Despite well-documented evidence of mailroom fraud,
election protests were perfunctorily dismissed by DC 37 and its
parent union, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal
What happened in the post office at 2727
Mermaid Avenue is known today not because of any investigation
by the union, but because the primary victim of Local 983's fraud,
Rosenthal, refused to stay a victim. In 1998, he first won 983's
presidency and then provided evidence that helped indict both
Taylor, chief beneficiary of the '95 fix, and the fixer, DeCanio.
Last July, Rosenthal made an even more startling
discovery in a closet at DC 37's Barclay Street headquarters:
the fake ballots from Taylor's 1995 executive board election,
all sealed and labeled. The postmarks showed that the fixers had
always used the same post office. "They also used the same
black-ink pen on all the ballots," says Rosenthal.
The burly, Bronx-accented former park worker
dutifully turned over the new evidence to the Manhattan D.A. But
DeCanio had already participated in multiple vote frauds, according
to Rosenthal, including the mother of them all: the 1995 ratification
vote, when DC 37 members "voted" to accept a meager
contract from the city. Transferring his tried-and true steaming
and discarding method to the Barclay Street headquarters, DeCanio
and top DC 37 officials had thrown out the no votes of members
who had overwhelmingly rejected the city's offer of a two-year
wage freeze, and replaced them with their own yeses. Thousands
of ballots were altered by DeCanio and his crew. A billion dollars
in lost wages is a modest estimate of what the massive vote heist
cost the members.
DeCanio's sweeping admissions set off investigations
that have produced 27 indictments so far, making DC 37 America's
most indicted union. The probes toppled Executive Director Stanley
Hill and led to the appointment of a trustee, top AFSCME aide
Lee Saunders, to oversee the union. Yet, despite all these repercussions,
vote fraud hasn't stopped at DC 37, union reformers charge.
The Manhattan D.A.'s office is reportedly
considering an investigation of irregularities in the delegate
elections that were held this summer to choose international AFSCME
vice presidents. And a Voice investigation has uncoveredallegations
of voter fraud, intimidation, and suppression of members' rights,
within the last five months in two DC 37 unions: Housing Authority
Clerical Employees Local 957 and School Aides Local 372.
Trustee Saunders owes his elevated position
and unaccustomed prominence to the forced resignation of Hill
last December. The former executive director had to leave office
when two top aides acknowledged that the citywide contract vote
had been fixed. Since then, Saunders has been highly effective
at projecting the image of a tough sheriff trying to take back
Tombstone for the good citizens. He's earned credit for organizing
the May 15 demo at City Hall, one of the largest union rallies
in recent history. He's targeted honcho abuse of American Express
cards, and moved to set up an ethical-practices committee. Placards
throughout the Barclay Street building now read, "DC 37's
Back! Thank you Lee Saunders!"
But when it comes to vote fraud, the tall,
bespectacled 47-year-old's position seems to be "mend it,
but don't end it." Saunders has hired Kroll Associates to
investigate the citywide contract-ratification scandal. But he
has yet to keep his promise to release the report at the end of
August. "I don't think August 31 was a date fixed in stone,
" insists Chris Policano, a spokesperson for Saunders. "The
report's not ready yet. Our primary concern is a thorough inquiry."
Saunders refuses to investigate egregious
cases of vote fraud in the locals. Consider the theft of ballots
in Local 375, the Civil Service Technical Guild. After being declared
the winner in a preliminary count, in a November 1997 contest
for president, Roy Commer's victory was overturned when the ballots
were literally stolen out of DC 37's locked security office. Hill
ruled that the election had to be rerun. Commer won again. But
after Hill was forced to resign, Commer demanded that the newly
installed trustee investigate who stole the ballots. "Roy,
why don't you just forget it?" Commer says Saunders told
him. "You won. It's over." Says Policano: "The
proper remedy here was a rerun."
The Saunders administration uses the same
reasoning in the case of the Local 983 vote fraud. "If Rosenthal
is president now," argues Policano, "why should there
be investigation of what happened in 1995?" Rosenthal's answer
is that staffers still on the payroll in '99 participated in the
'95 vote fraud. "Where did the blank ballots come from? They
didn't print themselves," says Rosenthal. "Why doesn't
the union investigate? Because they're afraid the staffers will
give up the big shots on the fifth floor who gave the orders to
fix my election." (Policano replies that if Rosenthal has
problems with the '95 election, "we invite him to go to the
Saunders has publicly promised to allow outside
observers to count the votes in future citywide contract-ratification
elections. But just this April, he ignored the pleas of candidates
who begged him for outside observers in the Housing Authority
Local 957 election. That contest allegedly featured physical intimidation
and verbal threats by incumbent officers against challengers,
as well as mailbox violations and suspect vote totals. Still,
Saunders told the petitioners he had to respect the local leaders'
autonomy. "The issues you have raised," he wrote in
a letter dated April 19, "appear to relate to matters that
are internal within Local 957."
Saunders stepped out of the room only minutes
before the apparent suppression of members' voting rights. On
July 15, the 26,000 members of the school employees' union- which
leads DC 37 both in indictments (six) and missing funds ($3 million)-
were supposed to choose delegates to the August 18 convention
held to elect AFSCME vice presidents. But the members never got
a chance to vote.
Newly elected Local 372 president Veronica
Montgomery-Costa stepped to the microphone on the night of July
15 and announced that she and her five-person executive board
would automatically become delegates. Then she proclaimed that
the remaining delegates would be not be selected by a vote, but
simply appointed in the order in which they were nominated. "I
can't believe she didn't orchestrate the nominations so that her
loyalists got nominated first," observes one DC 37 president.
"If that's what happened, it's a violation
of federal law," says Carl Biers, executive director of the
Association for Union Democracy, an activist labor group. "You
can't take away the members' right to vote. Because it took place
in such a large local, the violation invalidates the entire AFSCME
vice president vote. The whole election will have to be run over."
Montgomery-Costa did not return phone calls
from the Voice. But Santos Crespo, executive vice president of
Local 372, defends the process. "Who is making these objections?"
he demands to know. "I'll bet you didn't get a call from
a member. The membership approved the nominations," he explains.
What Crespo means is that the members voted
democratically not to vote. But the AFSCME constitution specifically
states that if there is more than one nominee per office, "the
election shall be by secret ballot."
Says Arthur Schwartz, who's handled hundreds
of candidate protests going back to the 1970s, "In all my
experience, I've never seen a union in the entire AFL-CIO where
the election process is so consistently crooked as in DC 37. Generally,
when my union clients tell me that they think the ballots have
been stolen or tampered with, I tell them to calm down, this rarely
happens. But in DC 37 it happens all the time."
Even for DC 37, though, the election last
April in Housing Authority Clerical Local 957 was a horror show.
The results were overturned on appeal. But the contest between
Walthene Primus, the president, and Robyn Little, a leading reformer,
illustrates how fraud and intimidation remain the pillars of DC
37's power structure.
Here were the steps in the process: first,
Primus refused to allow Little's supporters to be present when
the ballots were addressed, stuffed, and mailed. Then, according
to Little, the members were told to send their ballots to a private
mailbox instead of the U.S. Post Office. Next, Primus's team,
not the election committee, had a key to the box.
When it finally came time to open the box
and count the ballots, the election committee produced a double
tally: on June 11 it declared a total of 480 ballots had been
received, of which 349 were valid. By June 14, according to Little,
it insisted the number had swelled to 623 ballots, of which 492
were valid. You don't have to be a sore loser to be curious where
the extra 143 ballots had come from.
"Whatever happened," says Policano,
"it was just honest error. The process didn't fail."
Indeed, it didn't, but only because Little appealed to an AFSCME
judicial panel, which ordered a new election. "I think cc'ing
the D.A. helped us with AFSCME," she observes. Says her attorney,
Arthur Schwartz, "AFSCME didn't have a choice. We were ready
to go to a federal court."
While vote fraud has been common in DC 37,
intimidation may be the preferred method of handling elections,
if only because it's more efficient. So one of the first phone
calls Little says she got in response to a leaflet kicking off
her campaign last November was from Deborah Jennings, the union's secretary. "Who do you think you are?"
Little says Jennings told her. "You better back off if you
know what's good for you!"
"We have Deborah on tape at a meeting
of the members," says Little. "Listen to her tone; it
was menacing. Then she came over to me. She had these long nails.
And she went like this with her hand in my face. I'll never forget
it." "We can't help you," was the response to repeated
attempts by the Voice to contact Jennings at Local 957 headquarters.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss the matter," said president
Walthene Primus. It is a federal offense for a union official
to threaten a member.
In DC 37's blue-collar division, intimidation
has been even more common and more serious. Former Local 983 member
Louis Hernandez, now the assistant commissioner of the Department
of Transportation, recalls that in 1988, Local 983 president Frank
Morelli threatened to have him killed if he didn't give up his
electoral challenge. "I had a young daughter at the time,"
recalls Hernandez. "I feared for my family." After multiple
threats, he says, " I actually started carrying a weapon
for self defense. I kept it in my car." The threats played
a role in his decision to give up DC 37 politics and go into management.
Morelli died in 1994.
Conrad Hunter was another blue-collar division
worker who wanted to change DC 37. He worked as a street repairer
in Local 983. "There was something wrong. You could never
get through to call a rep," Hunter says. "The grievances
just piled up, and then they put them in the garbage."
Hunter decided to run for shop steward. "I
wanted to find out how to get on the ballot." After days
of calling, he was finally able to get President Morelli on the
phone. "Who the fuck are you? What do you mean you're running
for shop steward? I'll have your fuckin' legs broken," Hunter
recalls Morelli yelling at him. "I'll tell you I was scared.
I filed a police report. I didn't get no sleep. Every dark alley,
I passed I wondered who was there."
Why have voter fraud and candidate intimidation
been so prominent in DC 37? Simply because the union is a classic
kleptocracy, like Tammany Hall. Political machines resort to crooked
elections whenever their survival is threatened. What's at stake
is never the interests of constituents. What the kleptocrats are
defending is their control of the apparatus that provides them
with patronage jobs, perks, stipends, credit cards, travel to
exotic places, plus the illicit income from the corrupt schemes
that tend to flourish under patronage regimes.
A classic study of the corrupting influence
of patronage is provided by the double career of Lifeguard Supervisors
union president Peter Stein. Although most of the year he has
only a handful of members, Stein gets a full five-days-a-week
city paycheck. That's his third check, because he also works full
time for the city as a teacher. And he's paid as a grievance representative
by DC 37.
Stein also wears two labor hats: besides
being the president of DC 37's Local 508, he's a delegate in the
United Federation of Teachers. In that union, where dissent from
the leadership is actually allowed, Stein voted against the '95
citywide contract. But in DC 37, he voted for it. Stein did not return phone calls from the Voice.
Besides patronage as an explanation for vote
fraud, there are simple business reasons for the practice to persist.
Elections are sand in the gears of trade union commerce: voting
interferes with buying and selling of offices- as well as the
sale of members from one local to another.
If, as Mark Rosenthal alleges, Joe DeCanio
fixed Robert Taylor's executive board election in 1995, why did
he do it? DeCanio made a deal with Taylor that if he performed
his steamer routine, he'd get a payoff. Two hundred highway workers
would go from Taylor's union to DeCanio's. Rosenthal claims DeCanio
produced the fake ballots, but Taylor didn't deliver the workers.
DeCanio had more luck with Rudolph Giuliani. After DeCanio made
a $7500 contribution to Giuliani's 1997 mayoral campaign, the
city transferred the workers into DeCanio's union.
A sale also preempted a vote in the blue-
collar division, when Tommy DiNardo, head of the Boiler Room Workers
Local 1795, decided to retire in 1993. He sold the local to Morelli,
who agreed to pay DiNardo $1200 a month in consultant fees. Officially,
the two locals merged, but the 983 members, who had to pay for
the merger out of their dues, never got to vote on it.
"That's the way it's worked in blue-collar,"
says a DC 37 insider. "Each local is a business. When the
top guy retires, he sells it to the next guy. The new president
signs a legal agreement to hire the departing president as a consultant.
That way he's always getting his piece."
But buying and selling union posts is incompatible
with holding democratic elections. One or the other practice has
to go, and in AFSCME, it's corruption that's triumphed.
"The first time, in 1992," says
Ed Bennett, who was twice victimized by DeCanio's Coney Island
count,"I thought it would be corrected [by the AFSCME judicial
panel] in Washington." His appeal was rejected by the panel,
even though he had documented what would become a familiar routine:
control of the mailbox by the incumbent, the bogus election committee,
the broken seal on the ballot box. Bennett's attorney even got
an admission from the incumbents that they took the ballot box
home with them.
"But the facts didn't matter,"
says Bennett. "Our case was just one of many. They rubber-stamped
them all." Rosenthal's appeal to AFSCME over his election
loss in 1995 would get the same treatment. Concludes Bennett:
"Nothing is going to change unless the government steps in."
Or the members step up. Last month, members of Local 1549 gathered at 6 a.m. to picket union headquarters in protest over the union's failure to defend the workers against the excessive hours required by city management. If the protesters outside the building ever connect with the reformers inside, they could shake the chandeliers from Gracie Mansion to Washington, D.C.