There was a time when anyone looking for organized labor support in Western New York – politicians, business leaders, community organizers – found themselves knocking on Mark N. Kirsch’s door.
One of a handful of union leaders with clout beyond his own local, Kirsch was seen as a force within the labor community, a man who could help deliver endorsements, money and the backing of thousands of union members.
Six years later, the former president of Local 17, Operating Engineers, is in a far different spotlight – a federal courtroom facing charges that he helped oversee a 10-year conspiracy of violence and vandalism to intimidate non-union contractors.
Kirsch, the lead defendant in the case, took the offensive Thursday by portraying fellow union leader Gerald H. Franz Jr., the prosecution’s key witness, as the real villain in the case.
“You agree you did participate?” Rodney O. Personius, one of Kirsch’s defense attorneys, asked Franz at one point.
“Yes, I did,” Franz said.
Over the next several minutes, Personius walked Franz through a series of incidents in which the former business agent either participated in or directed others to damage heavy equipment owned by non-union companies. The tactic was one of many used by the union to pressure contractors into hiring Local 17 members.
At one point, Personius asked Franz to estimate the pieces of equipment he helped vandalize over the years.
“Would you agree it’s at least 25?” he asked.
“Yes, sir,” Franz answered.
“Could it be as many as 50?” Personius asked.
“Possibly, yes, sir,” Franz said.
On one night in 2002, he acknowledged going to four separate work sites in Hamburg and, with the help of other union members, damaging at least 15 pieces of equipment.
Franz’s admissions came just a day after he linked Kirsch to a “turn or burn” organizing strategy that included illegal activities such as “sanding” equipment, a tactic that involved pouring a sandlike abrasive into an engine as a way of disabling it.
He repeated those allegations Thursday.
“Did Mr. Kirsch tell you at any time to stop the sandings?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce.
“No,” Franz said.
He also repeated his testimony that Kirsch gave him “stars,” sharp metal objects designed to damage truck tires, at a Uniland Development work site in Buffalo.
“Is there any doubt Mark Kirsch gave you stars at the Uniland picket site in 2006?” Bruce asked.
“No,” Franz said.
On the witness stand for more than 8 hours over two days, Franz repeatedly found himself explaining why he was cooperating with prosecutors.
He acknowledged that it was in an effort to gain leniency when he’s sentenced by Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny and that his plea agreement with the government indicates he could be spared prison time.
At one point, Personius showed him a copy of his plea deal and asked him to explain a section in which he admits to making an “implied threat of bodily harm” to a non-union contractor.
“Tell the jury what you did,” Personius said.
“I don’t recall doing anything,” he answered.
Later, responding to a question by Bruce, Franz said the plea agreement was simply an admission that he was part of a larger group that made those types of threats.
Eager to damage his credibility with the jury, Personius challenged virtually every one of Franz’s allegations and claims, even the suggestion that he and Kirsch were close friends and so were their wives. Personius said that the two men rarely spent time together outside work and that the two women never socialized.
Questioned by four defense lawyers over the course of the day, Franz was asked if he was aware of how much monetary damage he had caused to equipment over the years, what he knew about the conduct of other defendants and, finally, about his role in keeping the union’s activities secret.
“There was a code of silence?” asked defense lawyer Joel L. Daniels.
“Yes, sir,” said Franz.
“Whatever you did, you kept quiet about it?” Daniels asked.
“Yes, sir,” he answered.
The trial will resume Monday.