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They were more than fellow union members. They were close friends.

Even more important, perhaps, they were co-defendants in a criminal prosecution that rocked the local construction industry with allegations of violence and vandalism against non-union contractors.

There was a time when Mark N. Kirsch and Gerald H. Franz Jr. seemed forever bound together.

But not on Tuesday, when Franz, the government’s key witness in its case against Operating Engineers Local 17, took the stand to testify against his old friend and former union president.

Franz, who is seeking leniency in return for his testimony, told a federal court jury about Kirsch’s use of the term “turn or burn” when talking about the union’s campaigns against local contractors.

“He said they would either become union or go out of business,” Franz said.

A former business agent for the local, Franz testified about 10 different instances in which he participated in or directed others to vandalize equipment owned by non-union contractors.

Franz also told the jury about a conversation in which Kirsch advised him to build an “army” of union members who could take over the vandalism Franz once did on his own.

“It was just one of the necessary evil things we did,” he told Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony M. Bruce.

During more than four hours of testimony, Franz portrayed Kirsch as a union leader who wanted the vandalism to continue and at the same time distance himself from it.

He mentioned several instances in which he authorized the “sanding” of heavy equipment – union members would pour abrasive sand or metal shavings into an engine – and told Kirsch about it after the fact.

“He did want to know about it but not know about it,” Franz said.

One of the first defendants in the six-year-old case to cooperate with prosecutors, Franz found himself explaining discrepancies and contradictions in what he has told the government over the years.

He acknowledged that his conversation with Kirsch about an army of union members took place in 2003, not 1998 as he initially claimed, and that he already had a small group of union members in place for the purpose of vandalizing equipment.

He also admitted trying to initially point the finger at a union leader who had died.

“Do you remember using the phrase, ‘Dead men don’t tell tales,’ ” asked Rodney O. Personius, Kirsch’s defense attorney.

“It just seemed like an easy way out at the time,” Franz said.

Personius said it wasn’t until later that Franz changed course and began blaming Kirsch.

“You knew by blaming Mark Kirsch, you could help yourself, didn’t you?” he asked.

“No, I didn’t think that at all,” Franz said.

The former organizer turned business agent began cooperating with prosecutors in 2009 and a year later pleaded guilty to a felony racketeering charge.

In return, the government agreed to recommend a reduced sentence to Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny.

Over the course of his testimony, Franz acknowledged that he and Kirsch used to be good friends. They socialized outside the office. So did their wives.

He described the former union president, a well-known figure in local labor circles, as an intense and confident leader, a micro-manager who almost always had the final say.

Despite that, Franz said, Kirsch was always quick to distance himself from the union’s wrongdoing while at the same time encouraging others to continue it.

“He said, ‘If I have to tell you, I can find someone else to do the job,’ ” Franz told the jury.

Now in its fifth week, the trial has centered around the government’s contention 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, using sharp metal objects called “stars” to damage truck tires and, in one instance, even stabbing the president of a local company.

In addition to Kirsch, the defendants are former business managers Gerald E. Bove and Thomas Freedenberg, and former union members Michael J. Caggiano and Kenneth Edbauer.

Franz will continue his testimony on Thursday.

email: pfairbanks@buffnews.com