By John O'Brien

Tribune Staff Writer

February 10, 1998

Describing the Chicago lodge as a front for criminal activity and its officials as mob members or their associates, the Laborers International Union of North America moved forward Monday in its attempt to seize control of the local unit and oust its leaders.

The union is trying to safeguard the $1.5 billion in pension and health and welfare funds of its beleaguered Chicago District Council. And on Monday it gained the support of a hearing officer, who in a 91-page ruling agreed that the laborers district council is closely linked to organized crime here.

The district council, which represents 21 local unions in the Chicago area, is led by Bruno Caruso, whose dual salaries as council chief and head of Local 1001 total $172,000-a-year. He is the son of the late Frank Caruso, a reputed mob boss in Chicago's Chinatown area.

Caruso has steadfastly denied allegations of being a puppet of mobsters, instead blaming union President Arthur Coia for fabricating charges to consolidate power. Caruso had opposed Coia's re-election in 1996, pledging higher wages and safer working conditions.

Within hours of the takeover decision by hearing officer Peter Vaira, there were these developments in an unprecedented tug of war between factions of the 450,000-member laborers union:

Officials of the Schaumburg-based investigative firm of Quest Consultants International, acting as union inspectors, appeared at the Northwest Side office of the district council demanding the surrender of door keys and financial records. They were denied admission following a brief confrontation outside the office at 6121 W. Diversey Ave.

Lawyers for the international went into U.S. District Court seeking an order of enforcement to place the Chicago District Council under trusteeship, headed by labor lawyer Robert Bloch. A hearing on their request is expected Tuesday.

The district's 19,000 laborers--including some City of Chicago employees--haul trash, sweep streets, dig sewers and perform dozens of other gritty construction jobs.

The release of Vaira's takeover decision, coupled with eviction efforts by the international, follows 19 days of closed-door hearings last year into charges by Robert Luskin, the union's general executive board attorney, that the Chicago council is mob dominated and serves as a hiring hall for shady characters.

Luskin, a Washington lawyer, was named to the post in an agreement between the union and the U.S. Justice Department that calls for the union to clean house or face a government takeover.

In Chicago on Monday, Luskin aide and attorney Dwight Bostwick issued a statement denouncing the Chicago District Council, branding it as corrupt and contending its leaders are chosen in "little more than a game of mob musical chairs."

Legal papers filed in federal court identified Caruso as "at least an associate" of mobsters while portraying several district delegates as either pals of or, in one instance, as a "made member" of the Chicago Outfit.

"The day has long passed when unions can regard investigations . . . by the government or the media as `us against them' or as attacks against the solidarity of the labor movement," Vaira, a former federal prosecutor, said in his decision. "If labor is to remain a viable force in the marketplace today, it cannot rely on government . . . to effect a cleanup. The labor movement can no longer close its eyes to corruption."

Transcripts of the internal union hearings obtained by the Tribune show questionable alliances between Chicago District Council officials and people identified as mob figures. The witnesses at these hearings included former federal agents, police investigators and turncoat mobsters.

Chief among them were Michael Corbitt, a former police chief in suburban Willow Springs, and Robert Cooley, a former criminal defense lawyer. They told of witnessing Bruno Caruso and others meeting with crime figures away from union job sites, in restaurants and nightclubs or at suburban parking lots and golf courses.

Corbitt is serving a 20-year sentence for bribery, extortion and racketeering. Among the crimes for which he remains behind bars was his role in the cover-up of the 1982 murder of Dianne Masters, a suburban college trustee. Cooley helped expose judicial corruption in Cook County Circuit Court a decade ago.

Corbitt recounted how one-time Chicago mob chieftain Sam Giancana put in the word that enabled him to become a police officer in Willow Springs. "He just told me one thing," Corbitt said of his benefactor, Giancana, whom he got to know while servicing slot machines. "Just remember your friends," he quoted the mobster as telling him. "Just remember who put you in this position."

As a money courier for the mob, Corbitt said he had access to top mob bosses and officials of the laborers union such as Al Pilotto of Local 5 in Chicago Heights and Vincent Solano of Local 1 in Chicago.

He told of seeing Bruno Caruso and Bruno's brother, Frank, a power in the union's health and welfare fund, in the company of the late Pat Marcy, a 1st Ward political fixer and known associate of rackets bosses. He said he saw Bruno Caruso give Marcy an envelope that investigators say contained mob street tax.

It's unclear whether Corbitt and Cooley will be summoned by the federal judge to whom the trusteeship bid now goes for review. But three union inspectors from the staff of Quest Consultants--former FBI agents Joseph Griffin, Robert Scigalski and Jack O'Rourke--are listed as available to testify if Caruso's lawyers wage a fight at Tuesday's scheduled court hearing.

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