In a half-empty federal courtroom in downtown Manhattan, former union heavyweight and Queens state assemblyman, Brian McLaughlin, declared in a clear voice that he was guilty of one count each of racketeering and perjury.
“I took funds illegally,” he said under oath, before U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan.
Those funds included political campaign funds, union funds, and funds from employers around the electrical industry, whose workers he represented through his union responsibilities, he said. With a group of co-conspirators, he and others “acted together to take funds for personal use.”
Despite “differences in opinion” on how to use the grifted funds, he said, “I take full responsibility.”
The plea agreement reduces McLaughlin’s sentence to eight to 10 years in federal prison. The maximum penalties for the two counts to which he pleaded — racketeering and falsification of a loan application to a federally-backed institution — are 20 and 30 years, respectively, and can command fines of over $1 million.
The plea agreement does not determine how much McLaughlin will have to pay in fines, or how much restitution is owed from the estimated $2.2 million he has confessed to having stolen. Exact amounts will be determined at sentencing in September.
In addition to the 50-year sentence he could have faced if convicted at trial, McLaughlin could also have met with punishment for 42 separate counts not conceded in the plea bargain.
The last minute plea, to which feds had hinted at since June, effectively closed the book on a corruption case that over the last year has reverberated from the halls of power in Albany to the Little League diamonds of Flushing.
Based in Flushing, McLaughlin, 55, spent his life elevating himself from a humble electrician to the highest echelons of New York labor and politics, where he exercised his power and influence for over a decade.
Starting in 1995, he was president of the New York City Central Labor Council, the local office of the AFL-CIO. From 1990, he was the highest ranking official of the J Division of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Local Union 3, which installs and maintains city street and traffic lights.
From 1993 to 2006, he served as a state assemblyman for the 25th District in central Queens, which represents Flushing, Richmond Hill, Whitestone, Fresh Meadows and parts of Briarwood.
The racketeering count to which McLaughlin pleaded comprises 23 separate acts — which, taken together, depict a complex and far-reaching enterprise of corruption that seemed to permeate every aspect of his affairs, both public and private. He pleaded guilty to 21 of the 23, all of which were for mail fraud, wire fraud and violations of the Taft-Hartley federal labor law.
Those 21 admissions included:
• Siphoning at least $97,000 from J Division accounts to service his boat in Tuckerton, N.J., and to make payments for his car, to a country club and to a female “friend.”
• Defrauding the Electchester Athletic Association, which primarily ran a Little League baseball program in Flushing, of over $95,000 to give money to his wife and pay rent on his Albany apartment.
• Redirecting tens of thousands of dollars of campaign finance donations to pay for renovation work on a sprawling second home in Nissequogue, L.I., for his daughter-in-law’s wedding expenses and for a $24,400 country club initiation fee.
• Negotiating with employers to hire fewer J Division workers in exchange for personal cash kickbacks.
• Creating phony staff positions at his state Assembly office in order to redirect part of the salary to himself.
•Installing an associate as director of the Commission on the Dignity of Immigrants, a task force created by the CLC to advocate for immigration issues, on the understanding that “the job would not require any substantial investment of time.” McLaughlin helped make the position the third-highest-paying job at the CLC, whose salary was paid in part from funds donated by the United Way. McLaughlin then rerouted much of that salary to himself so as to pay off credit cards, mortgage payments at Nissequogue and to pay country club dues, among other personal expenses.
As McLaughlin spoke, the litany of his thefts, and the personal uses to which he put them, went on and on. Sullivan interrupted to tell McLaughlin he could pause for a drink of water, if he so desired.
McLaughlin respectfully declined, and resumed — a task which, in the end, took about an hour.
Still, charges to which he did not plead guilty comprised no fewer than 42 other counts of conspiracy, embezzlement and money laundering, along with additional mail and wire fraud charges and Taft-Hartley violations.
Reaction around the city was largely one of relief and of sympathy for the McLaughlin family.
“Brian McLaughlin’s guilty plea closes a very painful chapter for our community and our city,” said Assemblyman Rory Lancman, who succeeded McLaughlin in office. “I hope the conclusion of this case likewise brings some closure to Brian’s family.”
Others who knew McLaughlin professionally expressed shock, but also dismay.
Julia Harrison of Flushing, a former member of the City Council and former state assemblywoman worked closely with McLaughlin for several years.
“He wanted to rise in the ranks of the political system, but he hadn’t really determined how to get there,” she said, characterizing McLaughlin during the time when she knew him.
“I was really shocked to read what he pled guilty to,” she said. “He just went off the deep end as far as I can see.”
Others close to McLaughlin seemed largely unwilling to comment. Even the victims of his crimes appeared to have had enough of the negativity that has surrounded his downfall.
The Central Labor Council — whose coffers McLaughlin defrauded of roughly $185,000 — expressed a need to move on.
“Union members throughout this city can be assured that the Central Labor Council acted quickly to ensure a strong and accountable labor movement,” the council said in a statement issued just after news of the plea surfaced.
The statement never referred directly to McLaughlin’s crimes, but wished “the McLaughlin family well at this difficult time.” When pressed, Carolyn Daly, a spokeswoman for the council would not comment on specifics
At Local 3, the woman who answered the phone in President John Marchell’s office said she resented being asked questions and hung up the phone.
Outside the courtroom, McLaughlin was asked by a reporter if he had anything to say to union members he had defrauded. “No comment,” was his answer, citing the advice of his lawyer.
McLaughlin is free on $250,000 bail, and is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 12. Sullivan reminded the courtroom that he was not bound by the plea agreement and that ultimate sentencing powers resided with him.