Six years ago, Mark N. Kirsch was one of the faces of organized labor in Buffalo.
Today, he’s a convicted felon, facing time in prison for his role in leading a 10-year criminal enterprise that threatened and intimidated non-union contractors.
A federal court jury found Kirsch guilty Friday in the biggest union corruption case here in eight years.
Four other defendants were acquitted of all charges.
“The verdict was a mixed verdict,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce. “We accept what the jury did, and justice was done.”
Prosecutors claim the criminal conduct by Operating Engineers Local 17 touched many of the region’s biggest construction projects, including Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Ralph Wilson Stadium, and added millions of dollars to the cost of those projects.
The verdict, which came after a six-week trial featuring 80 witnesses, ends a prosecution that began with the indictment of 12 union members in 2008.
Most of those defendants eventually pleaded guilty, but five elected to stand trial, and four of those five were found not guilty Friday.
“Their overall verdict demonstrates they were not enamored with the government’s case,” Rodney O. Personius, one of Kirsch’s defense lawyers, said of the jury.
At the heart of the case was 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 were accused of vandalizing work sites by pouring a sandlike abrasive into the engines of heavy machinery and throwing sharp metal objects called “stars” under the tires of trucks.
In one instance, a Local 17 member, Michael J. Caggiano, was accused of stabbing the president of a local company in the neck with a knife.
Caggiano, who had previously pleaded guilty to an assault charge in state court, was one of the four defendants acquitted by the jury.
“Mr. Caggiano is absolutely elated,” said defense attorney Michael G. O’Rourke. “He’s had this matter hanging over his head since the indictment. From my perspective, he never should have been part of this case.”
The jury also acquitted three others – union member Kenneth Edbauer and former business managers Gerald E. Bove and Thomas Freedenberg.
“From Day One, Tom always professed his innocence, and I think the jury saw that,” defense lawyer Daniel J. Henry said of Freedenberg.
Edbauer and Bove declined to comment, although both men indicated they were glad the ordeal was over.
“It’s been a terrible six years,” defense lawyer Kevin W. Spitler said of the time that has passed since Edbauer was indicted. “I’m so pleased with what the jury did. Their dedication to their job was so impressive.”
The verdict followed a trial in which the prosecution painted Local 17 as a union knee-deep in corruption.
Dozens of contractors and former union members, many of them testifying as part of plea deals with the government, took the witness stand to tell stories of threats, fear and vandalism.
The defense countered by trying to blame others, including union members who had previously admitted taking part in the vandalism.
In the end, the jury found Kirsch, the union’s longtime president and business manager and a well-known figure in government and political circles, responsible for much of the wrongdoing.
They also found him to be part of a racketeering conspiracy that prosecutors claim existed at Local 17.
Why the dramatic difference in how the jury viewed Kirsch and the others?
And was it simply a case of the jury finding it difficult to believe Kirsch, as the top guy, didn’t know about the numerous acts of vandalism?
“The case against Kirsch was connected by the evidence,” Bruce said. “The cases of the others were less connected and were much more difficult cases.”
In the end, the jury found Kirsch guilty of conspiracy to commit racketeering, conspiracy to commit extortion and attempted extortion.
The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Personius declined to comment on the jurors’ deliberations – they met for about 18 hours over three days – except to thank them for their weeks of service.
“We respect the jury’s verdict,” he said. “They were very attentive throughout the trial and demonstrated a substantial amount of dedication to their duty.”
The verdict ends a federal prosecution and investigation that rocked the local construction industry.
For some, it also confirms the long-held belief that Local 17 was a disruptive criminal force within the industry and that Kirsch was one of the union leaders behind it all.
“He conspired to extort employers and employees of Western New York of jobs, wages and benefits through the use of physical violence and the destruction of property,” said Cheryl Garcia, acting special agent-in-charge of the New York Regional Office of the U.S. Department of Labor, Office of Inspector General.
The FBI, which also played a major role in the investigation, said the verdict is simply the last chapter in a story of how Local 17’s “pompous attitudes and violence-riddled acts had a tremendous impact on this city.”
“The union members who pleaded guilty and were found guilty in this case made honest working people go to work in fear of being stabbed or assaulted, even more so than I do as a law enforcement officer,” said Brian P. Boetig, special agent in charge of the FBI in Buffalo.
Personius said Kirsch, who will be sentenced at a later date, is considering his legal options, including an appeal of his conviction.