One of the most powerful and politically connected union leaders in New York State has been indicted on racketeering and fraud charges, the authorities said on Thursday.
Ten other current and former members of the steamfitters Local 638 where the union leader, James W. Cahill, started his career, were also charged, a federal indictment shows.
Mr. Cahill is the president of the New York State Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents 200,000 construction workers, and he is a major player in state politics. He has helped negotiate labor deals for giant public works projects like the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge and has served on advisory panels for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat.
Prosecutors charged that Mr. Cahill and his co-defendants agreed to accept more than $100,000 in bribes starting in October 2018 in return for using their influence to help employers who had hired nonunion labor.
The bribes were in the form of cash, “loans” that were never repaid, free meals and drinks, free labor on personal property and even home appliances like garbage disposals and ice machines, according to the indictment in Federal District Court in Manhattan.
“The defendants exploited their labor organization positions to line their own pockets,” said Ilan Graff, a senior prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. “They did so at the expense of the unions and their members.”
Timothy D. Sini, the Suffolk County district attorney, whose office investigated the case with the federal prosecutors, said the investigation “uncovered a shocking level of greed and corruption” and is “very much ongoing.”
Sanford Talkin, a lawyer for Mr. Cahill, said his client denies the allegations. Mr. Cahill pleaded not guilty on Thursday in Manhattan.
The executive board of the union issued a statement on Thursday afternoon expressing shock and disappointment at the charges. “We remain committed to serving the hard-working men and women that we represent,” the board said.
Mr. Cahill’s union has a major presence in many of the large infrastructure projects that have marked the nearly decade-long tenure of Governor Cuomo, including the renovation of La Guardia Airport and the construction of a new $4 billion span to replace the Tappan Zee Bridge, north of New York City, which was later named for Mr. Cuomo’s father, former governor Mario M. Cuomo.
In 2015, Mr. Cahill presented Mr. Cuomo with his union’s inaugural “New York Builder Award,” for his dedication to such projects. More recently, Mr. Cuomo named Mr. Cahill to an advisory panel devoted to the reopening of the state after the coronavirus crisis.
Prosecutors accused the union officials of taking bribes in exchange for influencing the construction industry in favor of nonunion employers. For instance, bids for plumbing and pipe-fitting projects that could have gone to companies with union employees were instead given to nonunion workers, prosecutors said.
The yearslong investigation involved wiretapped phone calls that were detailed in the indictment.
The indictment said that in October 2018, Mr. Cahill received a $3,000 bribe from a nonunion employer in the plumbing business, to whom he introduced an official in Local 638 who could also be bribed “in exchange for protection and assistance.”
“Best thing you can do,” Mr. Cahill told the employer, is “get a rabbi.”
Two months later, Mr. Cahill and another union official met with the employer again and each accepted a $2,500 bribe, according to the indictment. After the meeting, Mr. Cahill told the union official, “Welcome to the real world.”
Prosecutors said the union officials abused their power to the detriment of their own members.
During an October 2019 meeting, Mr. Cahill, his language laced with profanity, encouraged the same employer not to sign with a union, according to the indictment. “If you become union, you’ll have 12 guys on your back,” he said, using an expletive.
As recently as May, the indictment says, Mr. Cahill provided the employer with a photograph of an ice machine from an appliance supplier.
“Take this with you in case you forget,” he said, punctuating his sentences with more profanity. “I’m waiting two summers.”
According to the indictment, the comment was a reference to Mr. Cahill’s “longstanding demand” that the employer buy and install an ice machine in Mr. Cahill’s home.
Nicole Hong and Winnie Hu contributed reporting.