Sleazy labor leaders live high on hog as members struggle to earn a weekly wage
By DOUGLAS FEIDEN
DAILY NEWS STAFF WRITER
Convicted tax dodger Arthur Coia (below) evaded sales tax on three Ferraris.
The Daily News continues its examination of the actions of union bosses who represent YOUR interests. Today, we probe how some union bosses exhibit questionable ethics, but still carry off sky-high perks.
Jake West is an imprisoned embezzler. As then-president of the International Association of Iron Workers, he raided his union's benefits fund to pay for golf outings and booze bills, vacations and steak dinners.
Arthur Coia is a convicted tax-dodger. As then-chief of the Laborers International Union of North America, he evaded sales taxes on a fleet of vintage Ferrari sports cars worth nearly $2 million.
Michael Forde is an accused bribe-taker. As boss of the 23,137-member New York District Council of Carpenters, he allegedly pocketed cash from a mob-run firm to let it use nonunion workers to renovate the Park Central Hotel in midtown.
The three are among the dozens of union czars who reap sky-high compensation and prodigal perks - in return for questionable ethics and rock-bottom performance.
The Iron Workers, whose members build skyscrapers and bridges, slathered West with $952,632 to cover his legal fees over a two-year period. Behind bars, he still pulls down a $231,000-a-year pension.
"Grease enough palms and you collect a lot of IOUs," said David Kendrick, a union-corruption expert at the National Legal and Policy Center, a Virginia-based ethics watchdog group.
The Laborers, who represent the lowest-paid construction workers, crowned Coia "general president emeritus" days before he was banned from running the union. The ceremonial post requires no work - yet pays $265,020 a year for life.
"Two words: It stinks," said Jim McGough, director of the dissident Laborers for Justice. "Honest, hardworking members pay their dues straight into the pockets of crooks."
The Carpenters, whose last four leaders faced corruption charges, lavish Forde with $216,442 in annual wages, up 15% since his indictment in 2000. Several outraged members told the Daily News that union brass requested donations of $25 to $500 to fund his criminal defense.
"It's called coercion when the people who control if you work or not ask you to give them money," said Gene Clark, a Bronx carpenter, union insurgent and member of Carpenters Local 608 for 45 years.
While 24 of his co-defendants have pleaded guilty, Forde, 49, has maintained his innocence; after lengthy delays, a tentative trial date of Feb. 26 has been set.
Forde was reached in Ka'anapali Beach, Hawaii, where he was attending a convention, paid for by the union, at the world-class Maui Sheraton. Temperature: 84.
"You want to know the bottom line? I'm not guilty of anything," he said. "I'll be found innocent when I get my day in court, and that's a guarantee."
The 21st century has been rough on organized labor - but not on the bank accounts of its stewards:
Union membership nosedived to 13% of the workforce, down from a peak of 35% in 1953, and the 532,000-member United Brotherhood of Carpenters quit the AFL-CIO in 2001.
But a Daily News examination of the finances and pay packages of dozens of troubled unions found that the wages of labor bosses keep rocketing into the stratosphere.
Consider the case of Louis Smith, president of Teamsters Local 810, at 10 E. 15th St., which represents factory and warehouse workers and truck drivers.
His résumé includes a 1988 gun possession conviction and a 1983 charge of beating up a carpenters union official. In 1999, he awarded a printing contract to his brother-in-law.
That same year, No. 1 Teamster Jimmy Hoffa threatened to throw 810 into receivership after Smith inked an alleged sweetheart deal with the Cipriani clan to represent workers at the Rainbow Room. In 2000, he was accused of signing a sham contract with a firm that had only one employee.
Despite his rep, Smith's compensation has ballooned - more than 100% over six years. He makes $239,533 on two Teamster payrolls, up from $117,292 in 1997.
Over that same six-year period, the local's membership withered to 4,937 today from 6,500 in 1997, a decline of 24%, according to filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Smith, 61, didn't return calls.
"Bloated, fat-cat salaries like Lou Smith's are corrosive to building a strong, healthy union," said David Levin, a Brooklyn-based organizer with Teamsters for a Democratic Union. "His immigrant members will never see that kind of money, yet it's their dues that pay his salary."
Among unions rewarding dubious deeds with big-bucks pay:
Case one: The cowboys of the skies
The Iron Workers union is a Washington-based international with three major locals in Queens and three in Manhattan. Members are known as the "cowboys of the skies" because of their agility atop skyscrapers. Seven ex-officers were convicted of plundering $1.5 million from a benefits plan.
As president, Jake West, 75, glommed union money to pay for personal pleasures like golfing in Palm Springs, dining in steakhouses and stocking his home with fine liquors. Sacking the pension fund - and filing false reports to hide it - bought him three years in federal prison.
But West still pockets $19,250 a month - that's $231,000 a year - from three separate pensions, including the one he embezzled.
"After 54 years with the union, including 12 years carrying the tools and wearing the belt of an iron worker, he earned that pension," said Jack Ormes, his lawyer.
Case two: The frontline guys
The Laborers, a Washington-based international with seven locals in Queens, six in Manhattan and three in the Bronx, do the heaviest, dirtiest work on construction sites.
As president, Arthur Coia, 60, was much investigated but never charged for alleged ties to the Patriarca mob family in New England. But in 2000, he pleaded guilty to mail fraud for evading taxes on a $1.1 million 1972 Ferrari Daytona and two other sports cars.
Spared prison time, sentenced to probation and ordered to pay fines and restitution, Coia was barred from an active role with the union. But his plea deal allowed him to grab a golden parachute — a $265,020-a-year lifetime paycheck as the Laborers' nonworking president emeritus.
Labor allies say he cleaned house when he took the helm of the mobbed-up union in 1993, quickly booting 100-plus gangsters from the payroll.
"He hired a team of former FBI agents and led what was without a doubt the most successful union reform effort ever conducted," said Howard Gutman, his attorney.
But corruption persists at some New York locals.
Last year, Daniel Kearney, 56, abruptly stepped down as $165,788-a-year secretary-treasurer of Local 79, the largest Laborers' chapter in the U.S., with 9,125 members. The local, at 520 Eighth Ave., discovered a staffer had improperly put $149,330 of personal purchases on Kearney's union credit card.
"He resigned voluntarily and made 100% restitution," said Richard Weiss, a Local 79 official. Kearney could not be reached.
Case three: hotel hospitality
New York Hotel Trades Council, a 23,494-member umbrella group, includes the 18,020-member Local 6 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees International Union.
As the Council's president emeritus, Vito Pitta, 77, once identified as an associate of the Colombo crime family, gets $119,400 annually — even though he retired from the trade group in 1998.
As Local 6's "retired CEO," he grosses $101,155 more — even though he stepped down from the local in 1995.
In 1979, a year after he won the top post at the Council, its board voted him a lifetime salary, to be paid at the same level as his last working year; in 1985, seven years after he became boss of Local 6, its board did the same.
"The membership clearly wanted to thank him for big raises and top performance," said spokesman John Turchiano. "There is no reason the union would ever consider taking it away."
Case four: cleaning up
Local 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union, a 76,043-member local at 101 Sixth Ave., covers janitors and doormen.
As president, Michael Fishman, 54, was eager to transform 32BJ into a political powerhouse after his free-spending predecessor, Gus Bevona, was ousted in 1999 for squandering millions in union funds. His first attempt - Mark Green's 2001 mayoral campaign — backfired spectacularly.
For 18 months, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau probed charges that union workers were improperly ordered to work for Green and give up sick time or vacation days to campaign. Reformists said even the backers of rival Fernando Ferrer — in a union that is 40% Hispanic - were forced to leaflet or perform other work for Green.
"It was horrendous and undemocratic," said Neil Scotti, a doorman at Manhattan House on E. 66th St. and a former executive board member of 32BJ. "Staffers were pressured to take off personal days for Green."
Despite allegations of coercion, hefty pay is the rule for 32BJ's ruling triumvirate: Fishman makes $197,081; Hector Figueroa, political director and treasurer, gets $174,413; Kevin Doyle, the vice president who was cc'ed on memos telling staff to take personal time off the day Green faced Ferrer in the runoff, gets $170,720.
"The union denies wrongdoing or coercion," said spokesman Bud Perrone, who added that Morgenthau ended his probe last June "with no resulting charges, fines or other action."
Shortly after, Perrone said, 32BJ hired a new law firm to ensure compliance with election law. He said Fishman, as a vice president of the parent union, is entitled to another $30,000 in yearly pay but declines to accept it.