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No one denies the threats and intimidation that took place.

Or the violence and vandalism.

The question facing a Federal Court jury is who committed those acts.

Was it the union leaders accused of breaking the law in order to gain jobs for their members?

Or was it the union leaders who already have admitted their guilt and will testify on behalf of the prosecution?

Six years in the making, the extortion and racketeering trial of five former members of Operating Engineers Local 17 began in a Buffalo courtroom Friday with each side staking out ground on whom the jury should believe.

“There are rules about how far unions can go,” said Robert Tully, a lawyer for the Department of Justice. “In this case, the defendants broke those rules and they broke them with threats, acts of violence and vandalism.”

The defense, in its opening statements, suggested to the jury that, yes, a lot of bad things happened on picket lines and at construction work sites, but they should be careful about who they ultimately blame.

Defense lawyers specifically singled out the handful of former union leaders who, as part of plea deals that grant them leniency, admitted to taking part in the wrongdoing and are now cooperating with the prosecution.

“They were caught red-handed,” said defense lawyer Rodney O. Personius. “It wasn’t rocket science what these lawbreakers had to do to make the government happy.”

At the heart of the case is the allegation that a “Local 17 Criminal Enterprise” operated from 1997 through 2007 with the intention of forcing construction companies into hiring its members and punishing those that refused.

The defendants are accused of gluing shut the locks on work sites, pouring sand into the oil systems of heavy machinery and, in one instance, even attacking the president of a local company.

Tully said the jury will hear from contractors who were targeted and from union members who did the vandalism.

“Who better to testify about the sanding of equipment than those who did it,” he told the jury.

The conspiracy, according to prosecutors, was headed by union organizers Carl A. Larson and James L. Minter III and local president and business manager Mark N. Kirsch.

Larson and Minter have admitted their guilt and are among those expected to testify against Kirsch and four others: former business managers Gerald E. Bove and Thomas Freedenberg, and former union members Michael J. Caggiano and Kenneth Edbauer.

Each of the five defense lawyers who spoke Friday questioned the credibility of the government’s witnesses, with Personius claiming at one point that Minter was actually paid by the government so he and his wife could move to New York City and she could become a chef.

Defense attorney Mark J. Mahoney said the government is going to tell the jury about “every bad thing they can think of” and try to pin it all on the five men standing trial.

To make his point, he said the indictment details nearly 100 acts of wrongdoing but only 21 of those allegations apply to the defendants.

“What’s the point of trying to make a union leader criminally responsible for the actions of others?” Mahoney asked.

Prosecutors say the criminal conduct by Local 17 involved some of the region’s biggest construction projects, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Ralph Wilson Stadium, and often added millions of dollars to the cost of those projects.

As part of the trial, they plan to call as many as 100 witnesses, most of them contractors, construction workers and law enforcement officials.

Tully said they will testify about the union’s illegal activity, including its frequent use of “stars,” a sharp metal object used to damage the tires of heavy equipment.

“It rained stars wherever Local 17 picketed,” he said.

The defense is expected to counter by emphasizing the contentious nature of labor-management relations, especially in the construction industry, where it can be violent and confrontational.

They also plan to argue that while the layman may find the union’s conduct troublesome, in many cases it was lawful.

“They did what the law allows them to do,” said defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels. “They did what they had the green light to do."

Defense lawyers Kevin W. Spitler and Michael G. O’Rourke said they expect to say little during the upcoming trial because their clients, Caggiano and Edbauer, are rarely mentioned in the federal indictment.

Caggiano is accused of stabbing Timothy Such, a construction executive, in the neck as part of Local 17’s campaign to extort jobs for its members.

O’Rourke suggested Friday that the altercation was nothing more than a bar fight between two men who had been drinking for several hours.

The trial before Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny will resume Tuesday with the first witnesses.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com