By ANDREW JULIEN and MARK PAZNIOKAS
Courant Staff Writers .
May 30, 1995
The men recruited to engineer a sweeping
reform of the Laborers' union are professional investigators,
former FBI and Justice Department officials. But four years ago,
when a tip that Hartford union boss Dominick Lopreato might be
corrupt made its way to top officials at the Laborers' International
Union of North America, the response was decidedly different.
To investigate the allegation that Lopreato had taken a gold Rolex
watch for investing union pension money with his friends at Colonial
Realty Co., the Laborers sent a union employee who moonlights
at car leasing company. The two men had lunch together.
Little' changed in Hartford after the investigation.
Lopreato continued to run Local 230, a union of more than 5,000
workers who do the hauling and digging of construction. Even after
Lopreato's indictment last fall, the Laborers took months to suspend
him from office. He was convicted of bribery earlier this month,
and faces more than 30 years in prison.
The Laborers say things are different now.
Just three months ago, the union ducked a possible government
takeover by vowing to eliminate corruption within its ranks.
The union adopted a tough ethics code and recruited a battery
of former law enforcement officials with impeccable credentials
to make the code work. The unusual agreement followed a far-reaching
federal probe of organized crime influence inside the Laborers.
But given the union's history, critics are
wondering whether the Laborers have the ability - or will - to
wipe out decades of corruption. The Laborers insist they are
committed to change, and point to their recent actions as reason
to be optimistic.
Their track record in the Lopreato case gives
critics reason to be cynical. "If you simply go into court
and remove the leading crook, who's going to take his place'"
asked Herman Benson, secretary-treasurer of the Association for
Union Democracy, a watchdog organization.
A gold watch
An early clue that Lopreato might have had
a personal stake in the ill-fated schemes of Colonial Realty was
An anonymous letter that made its way in
1991 to top officials at the 700,000-member Laborers International
said that Lopreato, then leader of the union's statewide council
in Connecticut and its Hartford local, had accepted the watch
as a reward for investing union pension funds with Colonial.
The Laborers dispatched Salvatore Romano
to investigate. Romano works part time for the union and part
time for the same car leasing company in East Providence, R.I.,
that provided Lopreato with his union-leased Cadillac.
The man who sent Romano to investigate was
a lawyer in the Providence firm of Arthur A. Coia, now general
president of the Laborers' international and a staunch advocate
of reform. At the time, he was the union's second in command.
Romano s investigation consisted primarily
of lunch with Lopreato. He never called anyone at Colonial to
ask them why the company had given Lopreato a watch with a retail
price of about $12,000.
Federal law prohibits pension trustees from
accepting anything of value that is intended to influence them.
In addition to his other labor post, Lopreato was co-chairman
the pension plan's board of trustees. At Lopreato's kickback trial
in U.S. District Court, Romano testified that Lopreato told him
he had been summoned to Colonial's office in West Hartford in
Lopreato said he was surprised with a watch
by the company's partners Jonathan Googel, Benjamin Sisti, William
Candelori and Frank Shuch. "He said to me they had appreciated
his help getting an audience or appointment with the trustees,"
And he accepted it? a prosecutor asked.
"Yes, he accepted the watch," Romano
said. "He thanked them and that was it."
After learning the gold Rolex was, in fact,
valuable, Romano testified, Lopreato returned it. Asked whether
the watch affected the manner in which Lopreato voted as a pension
trustee, Romano offered a simple answer.
"Oh, no." he said.
Off the stand, Romano said he never called
anyone at Colonial to get their side of the story. "They
were all targets of a major league investigation," he said.
"There was no point."
The full extent of Lopreato's involvement
only came to light after Colonial principals Googel and Sisti
-- facing the possibility of long prison terms - agreed to cooperate
with federal investigators after the spectacular collapse of the
real estate empire.
But even after Lopreato was indicted in September
1994, the Laborers took several months to remove him from power.
Lopreato immediately surrendered his unpaid
position pension trustee after his arrest, but kept his paying
union jobs. It took five months - and the adoption of an ethics
code - for the laborers in late March to suspend Lopreato from
his union leadership posts.
Six weeks later, a jury convicted Lopreato
of taking $350,000 in kick-backs. The jurors took only five hours
to conclude he had taken the money and the Rolex in return for
the Laborers' investing $8 million in three failed Colonial deals.
Robert D. Luskin, the former Justice Department
official recruited to lead the Laborers' reform efforts' says
the union would now handle the Lopreato case differently. To meet
the terms of its agreement with the government, the Laborers have
toughened their procedures for handling corruption.
A new code of ethics was adopted in January.
To enforce it, the union has installed a former top FBI official
as an independent inspector general and brought in a former U.S.
attorney to conduct disciplinary hearings. A special hot line
has netted hundreds of calls.
''I'm comfortable that if something like
this were to come to light now, they would do a thorough complete
job," Luskin said.
As for the, delay in removing Lopreato from
office, Luskin said the Laborers' international was tied up during
the early part of the year finalizing its agreement with the
government and the new disciplinary measures. The Laborers' old
by-laws included no provision to easily suspend Lopreato.
"It's entirely possible there was some
delay," Luskin said. "We were working 20 hours a day
in December, January and February."
Jobs and Power
The story of Dominick Lopreato was as much
about union politics as personal greed. His conviction on bribery
charges ties him to a sorry thread in the history of organized
The building trades have proven especially
vulnerable. The cyclical nature of the construction industry makes
it impractical for contractors to keep a full-time work force.
Instead, they rely on unions to provide supply of skilled labor
That puts tremendous power into the hands
of the people running the unions. Contractors who cross a powerful
union leader can see their projects stalled by strikes. Political
enemies inside the union can find themselves out of work.
In the fall of 1985, laborer Gary R. Wall
made the mistake of openly challenging Lopreato. Defying the boss's
directive, Wall refused to collect money from fellow laborers
for a political campaign, according to testimony during proceedings
at the National Labor Relations Board.
The tension between Lopreato and Wall escalated
during the months that followed, culminating an open argument
at a union meeting. A month later, Wall and a crew of laborers
were laid off from a job. Within two weeks, the entire crew -
save Wall - was back at work..
The labor relations board ruled that the
union had illegally pressured the contractor to keep Wall out
of a job. "Wall had become an unruly and dissident presence
on the jobsite," a Judge wrote, "who was posing a threat
to Lopreato's control over the union."
Wall's effort to unseat Lopreato failed.
His Committee to Reform Local 230 lost to Lopreato's ticket by
a considerable margin.
Lopreato's days of controlling the 5 500-member
local now appear to be over. His conviction bars him from union
activity for 13 years, making it unlikely at age 73 that he will
reclaim his position of power The local will elect new officers
But although Lopreato may no longer be an
issue himself, the power that comes with controlling jobs still
has the potential to create a crucible for corruption.
The Laborers, Luskin said, have imposed new
hiring rules in an effort to change that. They are aimed at guaranteeing
that merit and the amount of time on the hiring list will determine
who works, not politics.
But the recent history of Local 230 has shown
how ostensibly fair structures can be manipulated. In the NLRB
case involving Wall, other laborers testified that they had been
blackballed for running afoul of Lopreato.
Although jobs at the union hiring hall were
supposed to be handed out on a first-come, first-served basis,
several men testified that the rules were sometimes bent to take
work away from Lopreato's opponents.
Joseph DiLoretto who ran for union office
on the slate against Lopreato's, said he was at the hiring hall
when a one-day job at Bradley Airport was offered to the crowd.
He was the only one interested in the job but did not get it.
Other workers told similar stories.
"It's the jobs," said Benson, of
the Association for Union Democracy. "If you start criticizing
the business agent, you don't work."
The same cast
Laborers do hard work They dig holes, shovel
cement and haul debris. Lopreato used their pension money for
personal gain. His power made workers dependent on his good graces
The Laborers say they are committed to changing
that system. In the first three months of their deal with the
government, they brought in an array of troubleshooters with strong
credentials. Luskin, for one, was chief counsel in the organized
crime and racketeering section at the Department of Justice.
Coia on the other hand, has wielded power
at the Laborers for years. Following his father into office, Coia
was elected to the international's No. 2 job in 1989 and to the
presidency in 1993.
In the draft version of a federal civil racketeering
lawsuit against the Laborers outlined in a story by the Providence
Sunday Journal, the government said Coia had associated with people
involved in organized crime. The union and the government reached
an agreement to reform the Laborers from the inside before the
complaint was ever filed.
Luskin, speaking for the union, dismissed
much of the information in the draft complaint as old news. And
he said, it certainly doesn't mean that Coia should not be trusted
to reform the organization. "Mr. Coia's voted with his feet
there," Luskin said. `'He's led the way."
And if evidence of wrongdoing points to Coia
"There's not a one of us who would protect
someone who needs to be punished," Luskin said. "What
gives the thing credibility is its independence and the reputation
of the people involved."
The Justice Department has the right to appoint
its own officers to reform the union if it is not satisfied with
the Laborers efforts over the next three years. A spokesman said
the department is pleased with the union's progress so far.
But Benson, at the Association Union Democracy,
questions whether Coia can change the Laborers from the top down.
He says no significant grass-roots groups have stepped up at the
local level to lend momentum to Coia's campaign.
And Luskin admits that federal laws designed
to assure local control have provided ammunition for union officials
bent on fighting the directives from Washington. The international
is fighting an array of lawsuits filed by local officials across
"This problem is so widespread throughout
the union that in order to clean it up you would to have a major
reform campaign that really involves rousing the members to throw
out bums and put in decent leaders," Benson said. "If
you send one guy to jail and make no fundamental change, his brother
or sister or mother is going to take his place."