Flushing Assemblyman Brian McLaughlin pleaded not guilty Tuesday to federal charges that he stole more than $2 million from state taxpayers, labor unions, contractors, even a Little League baseball team.
The seven term state legislator surrendered to authorities early Tuesday, shortly after federal prosecutors unsealed a 186 page indictment charging him with 43 counts of embezzlement, bribery, fraud and money laundering. McLaughlin, 54, was released on $250,000 bail after a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge James Francis in Lower Manhattan. If convicted, he faces a lifetime in prison on counts that total 535 years, but is more likely to get a 30 year sentence.
McLaughlin first raised mild suspicions among political insiders in January when he announced he would not run for an eighth Assembly term. The legislator cited a desire to dedicate more time to serving as president of the New York City Central Labor Council, a job he had held for 11 years. The council is a federation of more than 375 public and private city unions with a membership of over 1.5 million and close affiliations to the AFL CIO.
In March, a federal investigation into the embattled lawmaker became public when FBI agents raided his Manhattan labor council office and Flushing Assembly district office and carted out boxes of documents on suspicion that he was involved in a bid rigging scheme with city street light contractors.
The legislator later took six months of paid leave from the council beginning in September amid growing public scrutiny about his possible illegal dealings. But the severity of alleged malfeasance exposed in Tuesday’s indictment was a shock even to those who had dealt with McLaughlin in the past or followed the FBI’s case against him.
“It’s a big surprise to me, based on him, the things he’s done for the community and the people who associate with him,” said Tyler Cassell, president of the North Flushing Civic Association, a group that has dealt indirectly with McLaughlin’s office in an effort to secure funding for repairs to the local Long Island Rail Road station.
Authorities said McLaughlin illegally received more than $1.4 million from the street lighting contractors and other companies; and that lighting contractors gave him three cars—one of which he gave to his son and another, to a female friend. Over the last decade, he also reportedly stole more than $140,000 from the street lights division of Local 3 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, serving as its business representative; and took over $185,000 from the Central Labor Council, more than $35,000 from the State Assembly, and roughly $330,000 from his own re election committee.
Especially troubling are allegations that the lawmaker took over $95,000 intended for the Electchester Athletic Association, a Little League program in Flushing created for the children of union members.
McLaughlin, whose combined salaries as an assemblyman and labor council president total $263,600, allegedly pocketed most of these illicit funds for lavish personal expenses. They include purchasing an $80,000 Mercedes Benz and buying a widescreen plasma TV for a female friend. The labor leader also allegedly used the money to finance his son’s wedding rehearsal dinner and make payments on residences in Albany, Kew Gardens Hills and Long Island.
The indictment also details a startling pattern of official misconduct. McLaughlin made union members perform menial tasks for him, like chasing rodents in his basement, shoveling snow in his driveway and hanging Christmas lights for him, investigators said.
He also purportedly appointed a relative to head a labor council panel called the Commission on the Dignity of Immigrants, even though the relative was a chiropractor with no experience dealing with immigrants. Authorities said McLaughlin pocketed all of the relative’s $55,000 salary over six months.
Reaction to the indictment was varied on Wednesday. Labor leaders rallied behind the embattled council president. “Everyone should keep in mind that Brian McLaughlin has not been convicted of a crime and will be afforded the opportunity to respond to and defend himself against these allegations,” said the chairman of the council’s executive board and president of the state AFL CIO Denis Hughes.
But Democratic District Leader Rory Lancman, who is running to replace McLaughlin in the Assembly, called the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said it “was a sad day for Brian and his family and the community as well.” After McLaughlin’s arrest, Lancman’s campaign removed a picture tribute to the assemblyman on its Web site, but kept other photos of the legislator posted.
Lancman is a member of McLaughlin’s political club, the William Jefferson Clinton Democratic Club, which was also the target of alleged embezzlement by the assemblyman.
McLaughlin, a Democrat, is the eighth state lawmaker accused of crimes in recent years, and Queens Republicans capitalized on his arrest Tuesday by criticizing Queens Democrats for a “tradition of corruption.”
But Michael Reich, executive secretary of the Queens County Democratic Organization, countered Wednesday that McLaughlin is still innocent until proven guilty and asserted that the opposing party had no place leveling such criticisms. “There’s enough corruption among Queens Republicans to more than compete with this,” he said. “Really, this indictment is not about the corruption of one party versus another, it’s about individuals and the bad choices they make.”