Sunday, October 2, 1994



Dominick Lopreato is accused of taking $345,000 in bribes from Colonial Realty in return for investments by the Connecticut Laborers' union pension fund. Lopreato's lawyers -- Anthony Traini and Edward Daly -- escort him to federal court in Waterbury for arraignment Friday.

A federal grand jury says that Dominick Lopreato took $345,000 in bribes from Colonial Realty Co. in return for risky investments that may have cost his Connecticut Laborers' union pension fund $5 million.

One might assume that would make Lopreato a pariah among the Laborers, who work particularly hard for their money -- doing some of the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs in construction.

After all, there is no dispute that in his role as a pension fund trustee he helped make the Colonial investments that lost millions. And his best friend of 30 years, a colorful character named Ronald J. Welch, is ready to testify that Lopreato profited handsomely from the union's losses.

Welch, the son of one prominent union member, Johnny LeConche, and the cousin of another, Charles LeConche, is the government's star witness. Welch says he personally delivered the bribes from Colonial to Lopreato.

But the union stands by Lopreato, its leader for a quarter century.

It announced Thursday' a week after his indictment, that he is temporarily surrendering his unpaid position of pension trustee, but he is keeping his paying union jobs.

His lawyer, Edward J. Daly Jr., was joined Friday at Lopreato's arraignment by Anthony Traini of Providence, R.I., who is associated with the law firm of Arthur A. Coia, the Laborer's national leader. Lopreato, who pleaded not guilty, has declined to be interviewed.

Lopreato's friends say their support flows from loyalty and gratitude. Lopreato took the Laborers' dispirited, financially ruined Hartford local years ago and built it into a political and financial powerhouse.

This local has $2 million in the bank and we own our own property," said Charles LeConche, the president of Hartford's Local 230 and business manager of the statewide District Council. The council has $3 million in the bank."

His critics say the support is merely the latest evidence that the Laborers are not a democratically run union, but a place with a checkered history where no one can speak out without risk of being forever blackballed.

We get complaints from Laborers all over the country," said Susan Jennik, a lawyer who directs the Association for Union Democracy. Because it's construction, union representatives have total control over hiring. People complain frequently about blacklisting."

A federal administrative law judge concluded in 1988 that Lopreato had blackballed four union members who unsuccessfully challenged him in a union election. The judge ordered the union to pay about $250,000 in damages.

Dissidents in the union, who say they long have waited for federal authorities to investigate the Laborers in Connecticut, celebrated the news of Lopreato's indictment, albeit discreetly. Lopreato is still feared.

One man said he was so excited at the news he dropped his morning coffee.

If Lopreato is convicted, he will be barred by federal law from union activities for 13 years. Dominick is almost 60," said one critic. That'd be the end of game."

A comfortable life

Life in the union always has been good to Lopreato, whose birthday is Tuesday.

He was paid $117,288 last year for his position as secretary-treasurer of the statewide District Council and as the business manager of Local 230, the Hartford affiliate. He also had been manager of the council, but he gave up the title last year to his longtime deputy, Charles LeConche.

Lopreato lives in a condo on the 24th floor of Bushnell Tower in downtown Hartford with his bride of three months. The marriage is his fourth. He gets a new Cadillac every year, and he belongs to a country club in West Hartford.

His shoes are always shined, his suits are well- tailored and his graying hair is neatly coiffed, nothing like the jeans, boots and hard hats worn to work by most other members of his union.

Laborers demolish buildings and they build roads. They haul debris. They do blasting work. They dig holes. They pour cement. They work outdoors in the heat of summer and cold of winter.

Lopreato spent little, if any, time working construction. Most of his labor career, according to a deposition he once gave in a civil lawsuit relating to the Colonial investments, has been as a union boss.

In 1964, he owned and ran a restaurant in a deteriorating neighborhood on the northern edge of downtown Hartford. It was a place frequently raided for narcotics, although a retired narcotics detective, Michael D'Onofrio, says he it appeared Lopreato tried to run a clean place."

In 1966, Lopreato became business manager of the Connecticut Laborers' District Council. He took over Local 230 a few years later after a series of problems and scandals, including the suicide of a former business manager.

Lopreato, the son of a former union leader, rose in the union with the backing of Arthur E. Coia of Providence, who held regional and then national leadership posts in the union. His son, Arthur A. Coia, the Providence lawyer, is now general president of the Laborers International Union of North America. The international was identified in a 1986 report of the President's Commission on Organized Crime as having close ties to organized crime.

With the exception of the time that a notorious mobster, William "The Wild Guy" Grasso, slapped him in a Hartford restaurant for unknown reasons, Lopreato has been a man accustomed to displays of respect.

Backed by one of the state's richest political action committees, Lopreato was welcomed by politicians throughout the state.

One former state labor union official says that in the 1980s, when construction was booming and most of his members were working, the Laborers' PAC was so rich it could give the maximum amount allowed by law to every candidate -- and still have money left over.

The union once had 14,000 members, but it is now down to 5,500.

Ronnie and Dom

One of his closest friends is the man whose cooperation with federal prosecutors became public 10 days ago, a fidgety 52-year-old named Ronald J. Welch, whose named used to be Ronald J. LeConche.

He was my best friend," Welch sadly told U.S. District Judge T.F. Gilroy Daly in response to the judge's questions about Welch's connection to Lopreato and his involvement in the delivery of the alleged bribes.

The occasion was Welch's guilty plea to a charge of aiding and abetting in the payment of a bribe. At 6:30 a.m. on the same day as Welch's plea, Lopreato answered the door to his condo to find FBI and IRS agents waiting to arrest him.

Based on statements from Welch and others, a grand jury handed down an indictment accusing Lopreato of taking two bribes totaling $195,000 for influencing the investments of $3 million and $2 million by his pension fund. He also is accused of taking another bribe of $150,000 for his assistance in arranging the investment of $3 million by a Laborers' union in Albany N. Y. .

Welch was a reluctant witness. Federal authorities, who had evidence that Welch acted as the deliveryman, spent months pressuring him to cooperate, one of the few ways of winning a lenient sentence under federal law.

I surrender. I quit," Welch told the judge. They're bigger than me."

That's true. They're bigger than all of us," Judge Daly said of the government. That doesn't mean they can prove their case."

But Welch evidently believes they can. He shook his head and said, I'm finished.... I'm guilty. I'm guilty. I'm guilty."

Benjamin Sisti and Jonathan Googel, the founders of Colonial Realty, had been cooperating with federal prosecutors for more than a year, telling of wrongdoing by others to win leniency for themselves.

Welch was the connection between Lopreato and Googel and Sisti, particularly Googel.

Ron and Jon Googel gambled together extensively. They went to Atlantic City, went to Las Vegas," said Jeremiah Donovan, Welch's lawyer.

Welch was raised by his stepfather, Thomas Welch, a handsome and affable bookmaker from West Hartford who repeatedly was arrested for gambling during the 1960s.

His natural father, John LeConche, who is in his early 70s, still is an active member of the Laborers. He works as a superintendent on a construction project at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center in Hartford.

The old days

Organized crime investigators have for years been seeking evidence documenting a relationship in New England between the Laborers' union and the mob.

Some evidence came from members of the union themselves. In the early 1970s, Arthur E. Coia, then a powerful regional union executive from Providence, wrote a report charging, among other things, that Michael Balesano, a former leader of Local 230, instructed union stewards to act as bookmakers for the mob and collect bets from laborers at job sites. The international took control of the Hartford local and reorganized it.

But organized crime investigators said Coia's memo was disingenuous; illegal gambling at construction sites continued after the memo.

According to local, state and federal investigators, evidence collected through state police wiretaps and by other means in the 1970s suggested that members of the Laborers' union were required to make weekly bets with mob bookies before they were permitted to work on the Hartford Civic Center.

Similar demands were made of workers building the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. Both cases led to a handful of arrests.

Charles LeConche, the business manager of the Laborers' District Council, said those accounts were ancient history, stories exaggerated over time. If there was gambling on a job, it was not the union's doing, he said.

It's a sad state of affairs that we still get painted with that brush in 1994," said LeConche, who complains most critics of the union and of Lopreato remain anonymous.

I respect the guy who says it to your face, the guy who signs his name to a letter," he said. We get anonymous letters, hang up calls all the time. I say, Speak up. Be a man."'

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