Village Voice
January 12-18, 2000


(Unabridged Version)

One Woman's Campaign Against Her Former Union Employer

Can One Woman Clean Up the City's Dirtiest Union ?

by Bob Fitch

Jan. 11, 2000

Louise Furio knew if she passed out leaflets this summer in front of the laborers' union meeting hall, she might be risking trouble. That's why she asked her sister, Rosanna, to come watch her back. Furio's leaflets, illustrated with cartoons of deaf, blind and mute monkeys, accused Mason Tenders District Council officials of an ongoing cover up of corruption in the union's annuity and benefit funds. .

"At first, I told Louise I wasn't going, I was afraid " admitted Rosanna Furio,". But then she decided to stick by her sister. "Both of us had worked all our lives -- thirty years between us -- for the union. We helped expose the thieves in the funds. Then just before Christmas in 1992, we were both fired. Louise was six months short of a full pension," explained Rosanna: "I couldn't let her go alone, besides, how would I have felt if something had happened to her?"

New York's Mason Tenders District Council isn't as dangerous as it used to be. In the early '90's ten of the twelve locals were run by crime families. And the Genovese's and the Luchese's fought each other with ax handles for control of Local 46.

Today, incumbent union officials praise a cleanup of mobsters that began in 1994 with the indictment of 23 officers, employees and vendors for labor racketeering and pension fund theft. "You must make a distinction between the current and the previous leadership," said MTDC spokesperson Richard Weirs in a phone interview,". Ms. Furio continues to be a disgruntled former employee who's carried out a relentless and at times, pathetic campaign," he insisted. "Whatever grievances Louise has are with people who are no longer here."

But Furio points out that it's the present trustees, who refuse to release to the members an explosive Court-Appointed investigator's report. She also asserts that one employee who stole nearly $400,000 has been identified, but never charged. And readers of the city's tabloids know that reform notwithstanding, scary things still have a way of happening in the 10,000 member umbrella organization for New York City laborers who do the hardest, dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the construction industry.

In the summer of 1997, Anthony Tarantino, a business agent from Local 95 of the MTDC was found slumped over the steering wheel of his union-leased Buick with a bullet in his head. The union's President, his girl friend, Christine McKenna, still hasn't turned up. All the local's assets disappeared too: even the leather couch and the rugs off the floor -- "busted out" like a mob-controlled night club. Most recently, in July,1999, the Manhattan DA raided the largest local in the MTDC, Local 79, as part of Operation Textbook. The indictments have yet to be unsealed.

So, given past traditions and recent history, Louise Furio wasn't exactly surprised by the reception her protest got from union officials. Local 79's Secretary Treasurer, Daniel Kearney, grabbed her leaflets and threw them in her face. (Later, he allegedly explained, it was the monkeys that made him lose his temper.) Through a spokesperson, Mr. Kearney however, denied the incident ever happened. "Dan says it's all nonsense. She handed him the flyer. He crumpled it up and threw it away. That's all."

What did shock Furio though, was a call from the FBI a few weeks after the incident warning her to back off. "Louise, I don't think you should get the members involved." Furio says top FBI agent Wendy Brouwer told her. "We don't want the Pete DiNuzzo's of the world to get a hold of this."

Pete DiNuzzo is a longtime member-activist, who is organizing an opposition slate to challenge the Local 79 leadership in this spring's election. If he won, it would be the first time in half a century that a contested election was won by a non-incumbent. But at least one FBI agent seems anxious to keep the incumbents' streak going. According to Furio, Wendy Brouwer not only participated in the investigation that led to the indictments, she's stayed on the case, as a kind of FBI political commissar.

Furio is pretty sure if she hadn't helped the FBI in the first place, she wouldn't have been on the street leafleting trying to get her pension rights restored. In May '92, the Bureau was four years into an investigation that would expose the biggest pension fund rip-off in trade union history: trust fund employees, trustees, and mobsters helped themselves to nearly sixty million of the members pension, health and annuity funds.

One Saturday morning, Agent James Schmidt showed up at the Furio's Park Slope apartment asking questions. "We were glad to cooperate, "recalls Louise. "Everyone -- including the controller, Carlo Mellacce knew that Fred Jandras was stealing money from the members. "Nearly $400,000 it turned out. "Members would come in to claim their annuity money, "Furio recalls, "And we'd have to tell them 'you don't have an any.' Freddy was just cashing the checks that belonged to the members at a coffee shop on Union Square, and forging their name.' That was a 'Freddy Special' we'd say. Carlo would issue a special check to the member to make up for the loss." Eventually the funds went broke.

"For six months, we cooperated with the FBI. Agent Mike Tyms was our main contact. He'd regularly call us at home and even at work. 'Whatever you say will be confidential,' he promised. But Furio thinks Tyms constant calls to the office were probably overheard. The trustees -- who were later indicted -- fired both Furio sisters, claiming economic reasons." But we were the only supervisory people laid off. I immediately contacted Mike Tyms." Tyms was no help. "For six months, we were there for everybody. After we got fired, nobody knew us."

Furio is angry that Controller Carlo Mellacce, together with his wife Teodolinda got a sweetheart deal when they left the Fund December 31, 1998. Both were allowed to retire last year with full pensions. Although Teodolinda according to Furio worked part-time for a full-time salary and couldn't speak English. And Carlo Mellacce served as Controller while money was being stolen. Mellacce, a church deacon, says he passed on the information to his boss, Anthony "Nino" Lanza. But years passed and Melacci never went to authorities. None of the annuity money was ever recovered. "They said Fred Jandras was a derelict, he didn't have any money,"

Mellacce's lawyer, Kenneth Aronson, insists that Teodolinda did work 35 hours a week. And that her linguistic limitations didn't hurt her performance. Carlo did the best he could to expose the thefts, under the circumstances, explained. Aronson "it's unrealistic to think that you report a situation like that to the police. That's not the way it's done." Mellacce was in fear of his life, says Aronson "He was getting threatening letters. Bullets were twice shot into the windows of his residence, "

Although the Furio's exposed the thefts in 1992, and never stopped peppering government agencies with affidavits and inquiries, it was wasn't until 1997, that Louise was allowed to give a deposition to Wendy Brouwer and a Court appointed investigative officer. Their report recommended firing Mellacce. But the trustees, advised by attorney Myron Rumeld, rejected the recommendation. The trustees also refused to release the report which exposed the funds' cover-up to the members.

Rumeld counterattacked, says Furio, by suggesting she may be linked to organized crime figures. Furio says she was asked by an investigator if she was related to the Lupo's, the family that ran the District Council for nearly seventy years. "Are you crazy?," she shot back. "Do you think I'd have been fired if I was related to the Lupo's?" A source close to the investigation acknowledges he was told to ask the question by the MTDC Fund's attorney Myron Rumeld. Asked if he had suggested Furio was linked to the Lupos', Rumeld said "I don't remember, And I wouldn't answer you anyway."

"When I started out this campaign, over 7 years ago, I wanted my job back. And I wanted a pension. But now I have a job. And since I handed out the leaflets, I got a letter from the pension department saying that the denial of my pension was just a typo."Furio doesn't believe it." A typo? Come on! It's a peace offering. But I reject it. What I care about now is justice. I want them to release the report. want the members to know they've been ripped off. And that the people who stole were rewarded with jobs and pensions. And the honest people got kicked in the butt."

I reached Agent Brouwer in her Baltimore office. "I can't discuss the case, I would get in trouble. But everything Louise says is true and it's all in the public record anyway." explains Brouwer."

"Is it true that you told her she should stop passing out the leaflets because it would help Pete DiNuzzo?" Brouwer was asked. Brouwer laughed softly and replied,"I am not going to confirm or deny anything like that." When told that her response would be quoted, she said,"Then I'm hanging up. Forget it."

According to Louise Furio, Brouwer has confided that she's been a crucial behind the scenes player in MTDC politics. "It was Brouwer went to MTDC President James Lupo's office and threw him out." It was also Brouwer who decided to throw one member off the '97 "Clean Team" election ticket. "How can we get rid of him, his name is on all our tee-shirts?" Brouwer was asked. "I told the guys, 'Brouwer explained to Furio," just tuck your shirts in. His name is the last one on the shirt, just pull up your pants, no-one will see his name."

Wendy Brouwer also allegedly told Furio she had a role in getting rid of the LIUNA trustee David Elboar. She didn't like his spending habits. He spent too much time in the Ritz Hotel. Elboar was replaced by his deputy, Steve Hammond.

On the other hand, according to Furio again, Wendy Brouwer did like Genovese crime family associate Mike Pagano. And despite being named in three 1994 RICO counts, and serving as a pension fund trustee during the era of corruption, Pagano was slated by LIUNA trustee, Steve Hammond, to become the head of Local 79. The court monitor turned him down. But Pagano's official career continues to soar. He's now in charge of state LIUNA funds in Albany..

A recent issue of Tri-Fund a glossy quarterly put out by New York LIUNA, shows Pagano just beneath a photo of the LIUNA general president, and to the left of Denis Hughes, New York State AFL-CIO president. In the Pagano frame, he is being couched by a media training specialist.

Even if you've been indicted and hung out with mobsters, it seems, you can still go far, if you get along with prosecutors and the FBI. They'll even protect you from whistle blowers like Furio and pesky union activists like DiNuzzo. Before he got whacked by John Gotti, "Big Paul" Castellano, head of the Gambino crime family, once said, "It's our job to run the unions." Does the FBI think it's now their turn?

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