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By David Staba

Before dawn on May 17, 2002, federal agents provided longtime Laborers Local 91 kingpin Michael "Butch" Quarcini and a baker's dozen of other union members with the rudest of awakenings.

Throughout the Niagara Falls area that Friday morning, the 14 men were rousted, arrested, hauled to Buffalo and charged with federal felonies including racketeering, extortion, conspiracy and destruction of property. The indictment charged that Quarcini orchestrated a "criminal enterprise" that used violence and intimidation to seize work from other unions and non-union workers and contractors, as well as discourage development in Niagara County.

Four years later, the prosecution that ended a decades-long stranglehold on the construction industry in Niagara County is drawing to a close, with only four defendants remaining in what was once a massive case.

Last week, the trial of former Local 91 President Mark Congi, onetime business agent Albert Celeste, steward Paul Bellreng and Joel Cicero -- Quarcini's son-in-law who headed a training program for the union and was indicted in July 2003 -- was moved back yet again, for what figures to be the last time.

At a hearing Friday, federal Judge Richard A. Arcara delayed jury selection from late June to July 13, with the trial scheduled to begin July 17. The trial, the third and largest in the case, has been postponed on numerous occasions, due to scheduling conflicts by the attorneys involved and a pool of defendants that shrank steadily as one after another pleaded guilty.

In the interim, Assistant U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., the lead prosecutor on the case, also headed the prosecution of the "Lackawanna Six," a group of men from that Buffalo suburb who ultimately admitted attending an al-Qaeda training camp in the months before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

For more than two years after the initial indictments, skeptics and sycophants questioned the strength of the federal case and, after the death of Quarcini on July 12, 2003, whether it would ever even go to trial.

But on June 9, 2004, Local 91 member Brian Perry, who faced three federal felony counts, pleaded guilty to violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, agreeing to cooperate with prosecutors as part of the deal. Perry's plea provided the first crack in the wall of silence that had surrounded and protected the alleged "criminal enterprise" that Quarcini had run for more than three decades.

In October of that year, Local 91 member James McKeown pleaded guilty to one count of attempted destruction of a motor vehicle, for which he was sentenced to one year's probation in December 2005.

Shortly after McKeown's plea, a jury acquitted Mark Lostracco on the same charge, which stemmed from a 1998 picket-line attack on a truck driver during construction on the Clarion Hotel on Third Street in Niagara Falls.

Lostracco's acquittal led to further coffee-shop speculation that the federal case might run aground.

Then the dam broke.

In January 2005, another jury convicted Steven Markle and Anthony Cerrone of attempted extortion. Markle was sentenced to a prison term of 57 months in March of this year, while Cerrone agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in return for sentencing consideration.

Shortly after the jury handed down the guilty verdicts, another Local 91 member not included in the original indictment, Robert Alecks, pleaded guilty to perjury stemming from his grand-jury testimony in March 2001, when he said he didn't know about harassment of non-union workers during an asbestos-removal project at the Niagara Falls Drinking Water Treatment Plant in 2001.

Alecks was sentenced to six months of home confinement on May 26, 2005. Within two months, five more defendants, including two ex-Local 91 officers, would also plead guilty.

Andrew Shomers, a former union steward facing nine felonies, pleaded guilty to a RICO charge on June 10. Salvatore Bertino, vice president at the time of the indictments, did the same on June 21. Six days later, Salvatore Spatorico admitted to destruction of a motor vehicle, for which he'd be sentenced to 27 months in November of that year. Andrew Tomascik Jr. pleaded guilty to a RICO charge on July 20, with Dominick Dellaccio, who preceded Congi as Local 91's president, following on July 28.

Tomascik was sentenced to 48 months this March, while Shomers, Bertino and Dellaccio are awaiting sentencing.

Shomers' plea was particularly damning. He admitted to being part of the 1996 destruction of a newly installed floor at the Target Store on Niagara Falls Boulevard and joining more than a dozen other Local 91 members in an attack on four union tile setters during construction of the Military Road Wegmans store in 1998.

He also confessed to the single most serious charge in the case, throwing an explosive device taped to a brick through a house where non-union workers involved in the water-plant dispute were staying. One worker suffered permanent hearing loss as a result of the attack.

"I've been in this business a long time and this is some of the worst conduct I've ever heard," Judge Arcara said during the hearing.

Shomers also agreed to tell the feds about four other incidents of vandalism or violence not included in the original indictment, including slitting a liner at the BFI landfill in Niagara Falls, causing $100,000 damage, and vandalizing Niagara Falls Housing Authority property across the street from Local 91's Seneca Avenue headquarters after NFHA officials had the audacity to replace a section of sidewalk without the union's help.

The rapid-fire series of plea agreements left Congi alone among the union's former leadership. Bellreng, Cicero and Celeste face three, two and one counts, respectively, and none are considered to have wielded nearly the power enjoyed by Congi.

Two weeks after Dellaccio's plea, information shared by Congi's former underlings also helped persuade the judge to order him jailed pending trial.

The revelations also shook the new Local 91 leadership. On the same day Congi was ordered to jail, federal prosecutors released a list of unindicted co-conspirators, which included new president Robert Malvestuto Jr. and Rico Liberale, Local 91's secretary-treasurer.

Malvestuto lost the "unindicted" tag in September, when he pleaded guilty to a RICO count and was forced to relinquish his office.

Two more Local 91 members not included in the original indictment subsequently entered guilty pleas, with Patrick McKeown admitting to a RICO count later in September 2005, followed by Randall Butler's guilty plea to a count of extortion last month.

Congi took another hit in December, when the judge ruled that noted defense attorney Paul Cambria's past representation of Quarcini and Local 91 in various criminal and civil cases over the years disqualified him from defending Congi.

Another prominent Buffalo defense attorney, Joel Daniels, is now leading Congi's defense. Cicero is represented by Niagara Falls native Joe LaTona, with John Molloy representing Bellreng and Terry Connors handling Celeste's case.

LaTona subpoenaed the Niagara Falls Reporter in July 2005, requesting Editor-in-Chief Mike Hudson's notes from stories he wrote about Colorado developer Joseph Aragon's allegations that Congi and Cicero, then a member of the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission, attempted to intimidate him into hiring unneeded Local 91 labor to build a restaurant near the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge.

Well-known First Amendment attorney David Jay has moved to quash the subpoena on behalf of the paper. A hearing scheduled for February on the issue was postponed and has not been rescheduled.

David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 9 2006