There's little question Western New York State has been an ideal home to the mafia. There are enough memoirs in circulation written by regional mobsters to make the case. Every couple of years, it seems, there's another book that makes the rounds, some publicized, some coming in under the radar, most self-published or looking like it. But none of the accounts carry into the present day. It's generally assumed at some point, probably before the new millennium began, that the mob dispersed from the area, just as popular opinion believes the democrat segregationists of the 1960s all flipped to become registered republicans by the 1970s.
One such book is FBI operative Ronald Fino's account of his mafia years, a book essential for how, in many ways, it dovetails with the experience of whistleblower Mary Ellen Belding. To begin, Fino saw in the 1970s, stuck in with many hoaxes, the same pass-through scam that would entangle Belding. Fino wrote,
"The plan was for Giammaresi to form a minority company to take advantage of the current laws that required all state and federal projects to award a percentage to minority-owned contractors and businesses."
That should sound familiar enough. Fino's account continues from there.
In Fino's book—published under the title "The Triangle Exit" and then later republished as "Mr. Undercover"—the pass-through scheme isn't a centerpiece of any kind, as it was for Belding. Not even in the chapter in which it's mentioned is it a centerpiece. Fino had an advantage over Belding; however, in observing scams from inside the unions; He and other mafioso had been handed employment as the administration of Laborers' Local 210. Where Belding watched minority firms cheated out of work, Fino was insider enough to be able to explain that even in the rare instance where a minority made headway within a union, it was likely just another con. Fino, for example, recounted the story of Robert Powell, which I will repeat here.
Powell was a black man who had been cake-walked into the position of Laborers' International Union vice president. That appointment could appear as progress, but the elevation of a black man to a prominent union position was, to someone with an inside track on union politics, seen differently; It was understood as an attempt to lend legitimacy to a bigoted union. And the story didn't end well for Powell, even as a hired poster boy.
The union's concern for favorable optics extended just so far; When Powell was, after his nomination, later considered to be a potential threat to the order of things, Fino recalled the mafia response:
"According to Powell, Angelo Fosco threatened him with death, which he took very seriously. One of Powell's supporters, Philadelphia Local 332 official Benny Medina, who I knew, was openly campaigning against the International Union's hierarchy; he was shot and killed in 1982." [excerpt from The Triangle Exit by Ronald Fino]
Powell resigned his position soon after Medina was killed.
Both Fino and Belding, informant and whistleblower, essentially battled foes who wielded similar weapons (unions) and used similar tactics (pass-throughs, among the very many). If Belding ever writes a book of her own, I wouldn't be surprised if sections seem interchangeable with extracts of Fino's, regardless of whether Belding can ever definitively prove the involvement of the Cosa Nostra, as Fino could.
Belding's chief adversary Dan Hogan, in addition to having been her former employer and tied to the pass-through scam, also had union connections. Belding faced a lawsuit from Hogan's company Crane-Hogan Structural Systems with Dan Hogan as the plaintiff, and perhaps coincidentally, another lawsuit at the same time that involved Hogan in his capacity as secretary of the Rochester Laborers' Welfare-S.U.B. Fund.
I asked Belding if she'd ever feared for her life, considering. She, it seemed to me, sidestepped the question and went off in another direction. I wasn't sure if that meant she couldn't afford it to be a concern or if she, just then when I asked, considered the possibility for the first time. She eventually came back around to the subject and answered,
"… to get back to your question, I think I thought I was protected from the government until I realized it was the government involved. And it took me a long time to get there."
Although a person could spend entire chapters describing Belding's interactions with government agencies, one example will have to suffice. When Belding couldn't find justice within New York State, she managed to interest three inspector generals at the federal level. She hoped that their recommendations could override inaction at the state level. It didn't work out that way. Belding explained:
"There's no checks and balances. So, for instance, (New York State) DOT with Scott Romanowski, right? Scott does not have to answer back to DC with any results, so it stops there."
Even though all Belding ever won against Hogan were small moral victories, she did have some success as a whistleblower in a case that didn't involve Hogan directly, the Rochester School Modernization Project:
UNCOVERDC: … the lawsuit regarding the school modernization that had nothing to do with Hogan? That was different?
BELDING: That was completely separate, but it was all his buddies. It was all the union. The president of the union at the time they made chairman of the construction board, so Bob Brown was the president of the union that Dan Hogan controlled, the Laborers 435, and he was also on the board of the Rochester School Modernization. This was all a setup with the unions.
Belding was the "unnamed whistleblower" in the local papers when the school modernization made its way to court. There were convictions based on her testimony, and if she wanted to portray herself as a champion, she certainly could. But Belding's too aware not to notice where justice fell short. We'll get to justice falling short in a moment. First, let's focus on the fairytale angle to the case, the story ending in which Belding was triumphant.
Belding worked with Attorney General of New York Eric Schneiderman to report women and minority subcontractors harmed due to pass-throughs during the school modernization. Belding had her choice moments in the lead-up to the court's ruling. By the time of the modernization project, she was no stranger to calling out corruption, so she was able to act the role of the crusader to the hilt. She recalled:
"I went to Schneiderman about the Rochester School Modernization and what was happening there. There was specific legislation for a diversity program in that $1.4 billion of funding. And what I was finding, what was happening, is the construction manager—which was Gilbane—and Rochester Schools, and their representatives were violating it all. And I went to meeting after meeting. I even brought a lawyer to one. We were exposing it, and by that time, I mean, I was just calling them out in meetings. I had a cheering squad from the women and minority contractors because everybody was afraid of them, and I wasn't."
You can see how the cheering squad in the meeting could make for an inspirational cinematic moment. Perhaps, even more, is this next scene where Belding comes across as well as Julia Roberts playing Erin Brockovich. Belding recalled:
"The three top pervasive abusers, and the people that were... the construction manager Gilbane, I mean, they would lie to me and tell me no diversity plan existed, I was crazy. I literally had somebody backed into a corner one night and pulled the diversity plan off their, got them backed into a corner, and he finally pulled the diversity – 'You're right, you're right, you're right!' -- pulled the diversity plan off his back bookshelf.
"And then I got the person who got paid $1.7 million—(Compliance Officer) Windell Gray—who was set up for all this by the government, I would assume, or the mob, whichever one, he didn't even know what I was talking about. I knew more about the diversity program. I knew it inside and out. Even by chapter number and item number, and that had to go through the comptroller in order for them to get the funding for this school modernization. Next thing you know, I get a letter from their attorney; I'm no longer allowed to speak with him."
That's the fun and games portion of the story, though which, if you buy into the mainstream reportage, concluded with convictions that offered proof of justice. Except that the convictions were mainly for show. Belding filled me in on the backstory:
"They took down five small contractors. They fined them, and they called me up, and they wanted to do a press release. And it was like $825,000, and I said, 'No. Everybody will know it's me. They're gonna destroy me.' This was in 2014, and I was under the understanding there were three huge contractors that were involved in Rochester, and in Buffalo, and around the state, and I was under the belief my understanding was they were going to go after these three.
And I said, 'Why would you make an announcement now? Why won't you wait?' 'Oh, Mary Ellen, this happens all the time. You don't understand.' So, I went along with it. Well, yeah, they turned up the heat all right. But [at] the same time, within I think a month or six weeks, they had campaign fundraisers for Cuomo in Rochester, at twenty-five grand a head."
I asked Belding if the bigger companies attended. She answered:
"The bigger companies held it."
The three huge contractors skated, the countless scams and con jobs likely continue, but Belding hasn't been forgotten in some quarters. While I was writing this article, she was honored to be included at a luncheon for whistleblowers held by Project Veritas.