Learning From The McLaughlin Affair
This photo was published in this column, Not4Publication titled “Manipulating The System,” on Dec. 25, 2003 with the caption: “At last week’s Tribune holiday party, (clockwise from top left): Trib Publisher Michael Schenkler with three of the leading Democratic candidates for Mayor: Congressman Anthony Weiner; labor leader/Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin; Council Speaker Giff Miller. Comptroller Bill Thompson, a fourth contender, arrived after the photo.” Tribune photo by Ira Cohen
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
I’ve been around the political game for a long time.
In spite of the bumps, foibles, problems and clear lack of perfection, I enjoy politics and am a strong believer in the process by which the people’s will ultimately runs government – through filters.
I grew up in a home that was involved and aware and had parents who were part of the political process. I majored in Political Science in college. I’ve been involved in campaigns at all levels and have been writing a column of political commentary, on and off, for a quarter of a century.
I’ve had my thrills and disappointments, my highs and lows, my personal triumphs and defeats. Regular readers know, I am not afraid to advocate and I’m not afraid to give the other side space to respond.
Although I’m often invested in the process, I understand the people’s will takes time and government and those who we elect are not perfect. Neither are we.
And every now and then, someone who we’ve known and/or admired disappoints us -- some elected official falls from grace and succumbs to the ugliness of corruption.
We are each taught by our religions to accept the faults of others because we have our own. We judge our officials’ transgressions and often allow them to continue to serve. At other times we express outrage. In all cases we are disappointed.
But in Queens, it seems every 20 years there is a political fall from grace that reverberates for what seems to be a lifetime with an impact so great that the system comes under scrutiny, procedures change and an awfully wide circle of people keep shaking their heads in disbelief.
Sure we believe there are corrupt public servants. But in 1986, we were shocked when Queens Beep Donald Manes, his ultimate suicide, and his “City For Sale” became the story of the year. Donald was a friend in the community sense of the word.
Twenty years later another such friend has been indicted, accused of wrongdoing of the grossest scale and our reaction to his fall from grace is only cushioned by the fact that we were forewarned when several months ago his offices were raided.
He soon became invisible. He announced he would not re-run for the Assembly. He took a leave from his super-powerful labor position. We sat and we waited for the news.
A BIG MAN
Brian McLaughlin was one of the most powerful union leaders in New York City. He was president of the New York City Central Labor Council and a business agent in the street light electricians division Local 3, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. His labor influence spread far and wide.
He was also a political powerhouse – not long ago, on the verge of potentially becoming the most powerful politician in Queens, if not the city. At times he was touted as the heir to Tom Manton’s Queens County Democratic County Leadership, the next Borough President, Speaker of the Assembly and most notably, for a period of time McLaughlin was viewed by many as the strongest challenger to Mike Bloomberg’s 2004 re-election. Brian McLaughlin might have become Mayor of New York City.
He was personable, charismatic, one of the common folk who rose to leadership. He was charming, he was good-looking, he was likeable, he was a man of the people. He was committed to the working man; he was an advocate for the middle class. And he had labor – the most potent political force in the City – behind him.
One problem: apparently, Brian McLaughlin was also a crook.
According to the United States Attorney for the Southern District, McLaughlin committed 44 felonies and if convicted could face 500 plus years in prison – he probably won’t serve that long.
He has pleaded not guilty.
The indictment claims among other things that he stole from: the NYS Assembly receiving kickbacks from no-show jobs he arranged; the NYC Central Labor Council by employing a crony to who kicked back his salary; hundreds of thousands from his own campaign fund to build his home in Nissequogue, in Smithtown, and to pay for personal dinners and gifts; Local 3, IBEW to pay for credit card bills and his membership in the nearby North Hempstead Country Club; different labor accounts, contractors and electricians for his “female friends,” family members and an $80,000 Mercedes Benz for his wife; and get this – the Electchester Athletic Association (Little League), a recipient of Assembly funding he arranged, some $95,000 to pay rent on his Albany apartment.
He allegedly extorted from electricians or contractors, personal service at his home, a driver for his car to and from Albany when he wasn’t attending so he could be reimbursed for days in session and also schemed to defraud the NYC Campaign Finance Board by using union or corporate funds to reimburse cronies and their wives for contributions to others that would be matched with city funds.
He appears to have masterminded a bid-rigging scheme where electrical companies Petrocelli and Wellsbach for years received exclusive contracts to maintain the street lights in NYC, by arranging to discount union wages in exchange for payoffs.
The above summary may not be precise, nor is it complete. It does however accurately convey the enormity and scope of McLaughlin’s alleged wrong-doing – in dollars, over $2 million. In morality, daring and reason, it’s unmatched. To the government, it’s racketeering!
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
I have no simple words of comfort, nor a solution to offer. I share some observations:
I do not think Brian was bright enough to create the many schemes he is accused of masterminding. He was apparently well-trained, inherited systems or the culture of was corruption is so pervasive in his world, that it was second nature. I fear further investigation into the world of labor may reveal that Brian merely utilized or tweaked commonplace schemes and techniques developed and in use by others.
The culture of corruption does not end with labor. How many more NYS Legislators must be indicted until the members of the Assembly and Senate and their leaders open up government and truly let the sun shine in. The days of hidden member items must end. Their policy and lack of transparency makes every elected legislator complicit in the process that allowed McLaughlin to take money from the kids in Electchester who play baseball.
Labor and government will undergo some scrutiny – they should. But in the process, we must not allow McLaughlin’s alleged egregious wrongdoings to sully the good people. Yes, there are many.
The labor movement has historically served the working people of our city and nation well. And although in recent years it has become harder to distinguish labor from management, and through the decades, corrupt union officials have converted the movement into personal criminal empires, the movement is rooted in the finest principles of our nation. Yes, the labor must monitor itself and be constantly monitored by government, but that does not demean its principle or purpose.
And government – it too must heal itself. This column has been yelling for years about the worst legislature in the nation. We see NYS legislators dropping almost like flies to the prosecutors’ fly-swatters. And reform is just a six-letter word they use in press releases. However, let us not let this McLaughlin episode, or the culture of corruption in the legislature blur the commitment of many of New York’s fine public servants.
Both in the labor movement and government let the people learn to be suspect of their leaders.
Both in labor and government let those leaders who know something is wrong stand up, speak out and stop going along to get ahead.
May the legacy of Brian McLaughlin be for labor and government, a radical change to the system from within.