Mercer Business Magazine


Mafia-infested union dumps tons of dough into pockets of Trenton pols

DAVE NEESE State House Bureau Chief

April 28, 1997

(Trenton, NJ)

It's been tagged one of the most mob-infested, corrupt unions in labor history.

It's under standing orders from the U.S. Justice Department to purge itself of organized-crime influence - or face a government takeover.

By the union's own count, 50 FBI agents have been assigned to oversee the union's mob mop-up.

And the U.S. House of Representatives Sub-committee on Crime says it too is "monitoring" the 700,000-member Laborers International Union of North America. But in spite of the union's long-standing unsavory reputation, its money has always been welcome in Trenton.

More than welcome, in fact.

And continues to be. Since 1993, Laborers International has pumped an astonishing $643,500 of donations into the coffers of state political parties, legislative leaders and legislative candidates.

That means a union the U.S. Justice Department labeled a mob "puppet" ranks among the very top bankrollers of New Jersey politics.

The union serves as a cornucopia of cash for both parties.

And party chieftains insist it's perfectly OK.

The Laborers International money is absolutely legal, they stress; it's reported to the N.J. Election Law Enforcement Commission as law requires.

And, besides, they add, the union is now cleaning up its act.

Laborers International money is funneled to the state's politicos through the union's New Jersey "political action committee" or PAC, based in Cranbury.

The dollars are doled out by check, ranging in amounts from $1,000 to $25,000 per donation.

Republic and Democratic money handlers alike welcome the union's downpour of dollars with open arms, like ecstatic oil wildcatters dancing under a fabulous gusher of black gold.

According to the Election Law Enforcement Commission's records, Laborers International in 1995 contributed $86,000 to Democratic Party or Democratic legislative bosses' political bank accounts. Their Republican counterparts received $70,000.

But in 1996, the downpour of Laborers' dollars shifted to the advantage of Republicans, who control both the Governor's Office and Legislature.

Republican Party chiefs and legislative bosses last year received $56,000, while their Democratic counterparts were left with the smaller political handout, about $30,000.

So far this year, the always dependable Laborers have come through with $16,900 in the first quarter - $13,900 for Democrats, $3,000 for Republicans.

Besides unleashing a flood tide of dollars on party and legislative bosses, the union also serves as a generous sugar daddy for individual legislative candidates.

Practically everybody gets at least a little something.

In the 1993 legislative elections, the Laborers made 20 contributions to Republican candidates, for a total of $24,410, and 27 donations to Democratic candidates, for a total of $28,380.

In the 1995 legislative races, the Laborers dug even deeper for the pols - even though the union's national headquarters, not far from the White House, by then faced mounting legal bills from ongoing battles with federal investigators.

In the '95 general election legislative races, the Laborers were good for 37 donations to Republican candidates, for a total of $55,210, and 30 donations to Democratic candidates, for a total of $33,000.

In 1994 and 1995 - as union leaders scrambled frantically to fend off a federal racketeering complaint - they were still attentive to the needs of New Jersey pols. The Laborers' New Jersey PAC disgorged $226,000 in donations over that period for party and legislative bosses, Republicans and Democrats.

New Jersey Republican State Chairman Chuck Haytaian and Democratic State Chairman Tom Byrne both are adamant there's nothing even unseemly, let alone improper, about taking huge amounts of money from a union like the Laborers International.

"The people I deal with (at the union) are honorable people," said Byrne.

He praised the Laborers' New Jersey leader, Raymond Pocino, who was installed as part of the union cleanup effort, as "a good and upstanding guy."

He said he was not familiar with many of the details of the union's controversial background and history.

But in his experience, he added, the union's always-open political checkbook only reflects its interest in pushing a legitimate agenda.

"That agenda, in one word, is jobs," said Byrne.

Haytaian, too, said he knew few details of the Laborers' history or allegations against the union.

But he said it's his understanding that the U.S. Justice Department cleanup order, signed in January 1995, "alleviated" the union's mob problems.

The Republican chairman characterized his party's acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars from the union as a routine political transaction.

"As far as the contributions to the Democrats and Republicans go, yes, they were made," he said.

"They're just part of the interest groups that help you if they agree with your philosophy and that don't help you if they don't agree with your philosophy," he said.

Dennis Jaffee of N.J. Common Cause, a watchdog group that monitors campaign dollars, said the replies from the two party bosses are hardly surprising.

The political money solicitors aren't, as a rule, inclined to look a gift horse too closely in the mouth, he said. Usually they will spurn a contribution only if they're certain it will lead to embarrassing and politically damaging controversy.

Ethical considerations play hardly any role at all in transactions involving political dollars, added Jaffee.

Laborers' chief Pocino himself said his union's reputation for organized-crime links is "overblown' and has been unfairly exploited by political adversaries.

The cleanup agreement that the union signed with the U.S. Justice Department recognizes "there were some pockets of problems," and those are being dealt with, he added.

He said the Laborers International expects to fully carry out the requirements of its cleanup deal with the feds and be released from the government monitoring arrangements. "And we'll come out of it as a better union," he added.

As for the political donations, he added, they're meant simply to promote a typical labor union agenda. That includes the protection of workers' jobs, paychecks and work conditions, he said. He said the union also is interested in promoting "economic development."

The Laborers represents mostly construction workers, brick handlers and asbestos removers. It has about 20,000 New Jersey members.

Given the power of the Legislature to affect the economic well being of a worker's family just by passing a particular bill or not passing it," political donations are a necessity, said Pocino.

"You'd be crazy not to give," he added.

He insisted the Laborers International contributions don't buy votes; they just give the union access and a chance to make its views known to the powers that be.

That is what special interests, whether business, labor or professional groups, usually say in defense of the political money games they play.

Pocino was asked whether he thought the hundreds of thousands of dollars the Laborers International has peeled off its wad and distributed among New Jersey's pols has been money well spent.

He didn't hesitate a second. "Sure," he said. "Of course it's been worth it."


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