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For the first time since his arrest six years ago, former construction union president Mark N. Kirsch spoke publicly Thursday about the allegation that he oversaw a criminal enterprise that threatened and intimidated non-union contractors for more than a decade.

Kirsch, a prominent figure in the labor community, took the witness stand in his federal court trial and denied the government’s claim that he was a major figure in a conspiracy that forced construction companies into hiring its members and punished those that refused.

To hear Kirsch talk, he was aware of only five instances of vandalism while he was in charge of Operating Engineers Local 17 and, when warranted, he reprimanded members for taking part in it. “I let the membership know how angry I was,” he said.

More than any other defendant on trial, Kirsch has become the focus of the government’s allegations that the union’s use of threats, intimidation and vandalism forced the price of construction projects to increase by millions of dollars.

Kirsch, during his testimony Thursday, said he never directed or condoned the vandalism of heavy equipment owned by non-union contractors.

“Did any contractors ever contact you as president of Local 17 to report or complain about vandalism?” Rodney O. Personius, one of Kirsch’s defense lawyers, asked him at one point.

“No,” Kirsch said.

Personius also asked if any of his fellow union leaders, some of whom pleaded guilty, ever came to him with reports of vandalism.

He said, “No.”

Now in its seventh week, the trial has become, in part, a debate over who the jury should believe.

No one denies the threats and intimidation took place, but Kirsch and the other defendants have been quick to suggest others were behind the wrongdoing.

Kirsch’s testimony differs greatly from the former union leaders and contractors – there have been more than 75 witnesses so far – who took the stand against him and offered one story after another of violence and vandalism.

One former union leader said Kirsch was careful to distance himself from any wrongdoing while at the same time making it clear he approved of such activities.

One of those activities was Local 17’s use of “stars” – sharp metal objects designed to damage truck tires.

Among the allegations is that Kirsch supplied stars to union members picketing a job site in Buffalo.

“Have you ever thrown or placed a star?” Personius asked.

“No,” Kirsch said.

“Have you ever made stars," Personius asked.

“No,” he said.

One by one, Kirsch’s co-defendants took the stand this week to offer their side of the story for the first time since a grand jury indicted them in 2008.

In all but one instance, they denied the allegations of violence and vandalism, with some pointing the finger at other Local 17 members.

Thomas Freedenberg, a former business agent, recalled a conversation with fellow union member George Dewald, who wanted to know if the union would hire a lawyer to represent him if he ever did anything wrong.

Dewald has since pleaded guilty to extortion.

“I said, ‘George, use your head,’” Freedenberg told the jury. “‘Don’t do anything wrong and you won’t need an attorney.’ ”

At the urging of his lawyer, Joel L. Daniels, Freedenberg went down the list of contractors and union members who have testified and said he never discussed vandalism with any of them.

The government’s indictment claims Freedenberg helped orchestrate a work slowdown at golf course construction sites in Orchard Park and Cheektowaga.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce played an audio recording of Freedenberg talking with the contractor about its claims of a slowdown.

Former business agent Gerald Bove offered similar testimony regarding his alleged involvement in “sanding” at the Chaffee landfill in southern Erie County.

Union members are accused of pouring an abrasive sand into the engines of heavy equipment as a way of disabling them.

Prosecutors claim Bove informed his membership of the contractor’s refusal to sign a union contract at Chaffee and a few days later, the contractor’s equipment was sanded.

“Did you know who did that?” asked Mark J. Mahoney, Bove’s defense lawyer.

“I did not," Bove said.

“When did you learn who did that?” Mahoney asked.

“At this trial,” he said.

When Bruce asked why he didn’t urge Kirsch and others to investigate the union’s involvement in the sanding, Bove said he didn’t think it was his place.

“I don’t know what I could have done,” he said.

The only defendant who acknowledged some wrongdoing was Michael J. Caggiano, who admitted stabbing contractor Timothy Such in the neck with a knife a few days before Christmas of 2002.

Caggiano described his altercation with Such as a bar fight – they were both drinking at Kettle’s tavern in Orchard Park – and said it had nothing to do with his union.

When prosecutors reminded Caggiano of his induction into Local 17 six months after the stabbing, he claimed it was a coincidence.

He also claimed he was unaware that Such was injured until after he was questioned by police.

“You had no idea you had stabbed Mr. Such in the neck,” asked prosecutor Robert Tully.

“No,” said Caggiano.

The only defendant who did not testify was Kenneth Edbauer, a Local 17 member accused of throwing coffee at a non-union truck driver at a picket line in Buffalo.

Prosecutors also claim Edbauer boasted about the union’s use of stars and showed for the jury a video of Edbauer talking about the practice while on the same picket line in 2006.

The trial will continue today with more testimony by Kirsch, including the government’s cross examination of the former union president.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com