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By David Staba

In March, 1997, Mark Congi had a chat with the project manager of a company attempting to do an asbestos removal job without the benefit of workers from Laborers Local 91.

According to the 54-page, seven-count indictment announced Friday by federal prosecutors, the hulking Congi delivered a simple message. The project manager told the grand jury that indicted Congi warned him, "This is Niagara Falls and it is (our) town."

Not anymore.

Friday's arrests of Congi, longtime Local 91 Business Manager Michael "Butch" Quarcini and 12 other union members on a boatload of charges, including racketeering, extortion, conspiracy and destruction of property, effectively gutted the leadership of a union that prosecutors say evolved into a criminal organization.

"The hierarchy of the union as it is today will cease to exist," said Anthony Bruce, Chief of Organized Crime Investigation for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Buffalo.

U.S. Attorney Michael A. Battle said the investigation into Local 91 is ongoing. Anyone wishing to come forward with information can call the U.S. Attorney's Office at 551-3865.

The union's Washington, D.C.-based parent organization, Laborers International Union of North America, took control of Local 91's operations over the weekend, while the Niagara County Sheriff's Department padlocked its Seneca Avenue headquarters and put officers on 24-hour watch outside the building.

"These premises have been placed under the supervision of Sheriff's Department," read a sign posted on the front door.

LIUNA's constitution mandates immediate suspension of "any officer, agent, representative, or employee of any entity within the Union (that) has been indicted for any felony violation ... relating to the conduct of the affairs of a labor organization."

And the 14 defendants were charged with plenty of felonies Friday -- 33 in all. Each carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In addition, 10 of the indicted -- Congi, Quarcini, former President Dominick Dellaccio, Vice President Salvatore Bertino, Assistant Business Manager Albert Celeste, Andrew Shomers, Salvatore Spatorico, Andrew Tomascik Jr., Paul Bellreng and Brian Perry -- also face forfeiture of any money or property gained from the acts alleged in the indictment.

"The defendants as a group were referred to as the 'goon squad,' 'strong arms' and 'thugs,' based, in part, upon their willingness to engage in acts and threats of violence, sabotage and destruction of property on construction projects within Niagara County," the indictment reads.

"These criminal acts were perpetrated by the defendants upon a number of victims, including persons and businesses conducting projects in Niagara Falls, their fellow union members and other tradespersons and persons suspected of cooperating with law enforcement authorities against members of the Local 91 Criminal Enterprise."

Unlike the International's takeover of Laborers Local 210 in Buffalo, the four-year investigation of Local 91 found not a union infiltrated by the Mafia, but something of a mob unto itself.

"Clearly, the organization of Local 91 is the criminal enterprise here," said Peter Ahearn, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Buffalo office. "Whether they were 'wanna-bes' in terms of how they did business, you can draw your own conclusions."

Ahearn characterized the vast majority of the union's 666 members as "hard-working guys," who at worst knew something about the activities of their leaders.

"This isn't an indictment of the rank-and-file," Ahearn said. "I think some of them should say, 'Hey, how come I'm not working?'"

Ahearn and several other officials at Friday's news conference at the U.S. Attorney's office cited the impact of the defendants' tactics on the local construction industry.

"For the people of Niagara County, this is huge," said District Attorney Matt Murphy III, whose request triggered the four-year investigation that included federal, state and local officials. "For 30 years, this corrupt labor union has had a stranglehold on Niagara County. For the first time, we can see daylight."

United States Attorney Michael A. Battle said Local 91's strategy began with threats like the one Congi allegedly delivered on the aforementioned asbestos removal project.

"On at least eight occasions, the threats turned into a reality and a major-league nightmare for the victims," Battle said.

While some incidents of Local 91-related violence were prosecuted individually in city and town courts, most cases were pleaded down to minor violations or dismissed entirely, with defendants often receiving support from elected officials who accepted campaign donations from Local 91's political action committee.

Ahearn said the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 may have snuffed that long-prevalent "boys will be boys" attitude.

"There's that old school of thought that a certain amount of violence is tolerable in labor disputes," Ahearn said. "That level, since September, has gone down. People don't want to deal with this anymore. And it went beyond the job site to people's homes."

Battle and Ahearn said the investigation continues, and encouraged anyone else threatened or attacked by Local 91 members to come forward. The federal grand jury has almost a year remaining on its term and could be extended an additional four months.

"If people connected to Local 91 continue to participate in this kind of activity, there will be more arrests," Battle added.

The charges filed last week involved projects dating from November, 1996 to August, 2001 -- a construction project in Lockport, the asbestos removal project in Niagara Falls, and construction projects at the Rainbow Bridge, the Clarion and Niagara Falls hotels, Wegman's on Military Road, the new Niagara Falls High School, the Niagara Falls Air Base and the Lewiston-Porter Middle School.

Some lowlights from the indictment (Note: The companies, victims and witnesses involved were not named in the indictment itself for safety reasons. Battle said some witnesses have already been threatened. These excerpts have been edited to eliminate redundancies and some legalese. And consider yourself warned about some of the language. To paraphrase Mayor Irene Elia, if you like Mike Tyson interviews, you're going to love this):








But the feds never did leave. Bertino, along with Congi and Shomers, will have to find their fun in jail, where they're slated to remain until at least Wednesday's detention hearing.

Prosecutors plan to ask U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie G. Foschio to deny them bail, saying that they pose a continued threat to witnesses. The other 11 defendants were released Friday on signature bond.

And if convicted, the members of "the goon squad" and the union leaders who gave them their orders will have up to 20 years to reminisce about the days when Niagara Falls was their town.


Niagara Falls Reporter May 21 2002