Carpenters say they were fired for exposing union corruption, file whistleblower lawsuit
By Ted Sherman | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
George R. Laufenberg, the indicted carpenters union benefits manager and former Port Authority commissioner who was the focus of an apparent internal struggle over allegations of wrongdoing that led to charges of retaliation on Tuesday.Star-Ledger file photo
Five former union members filed a whistleblower lawsuit Tuesday against the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters and its executive secretary, claiming they were ousted after they tried to root out corruption within the politically powerful labor organization.
Among the five were Assemblyman Anthony Verrelli, D-Mercer, a union leader who had been closely associated with John Ballantyne, the former executive secretary-treasurer of the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters. Ballantyne was ousted himself in what he claimed was an act of retribution over his own push back against the union’s leadership.
According to the complaint filed Tuesday in Superior Court in Essex County, even before they were fired, Verrelli and others said they had their budgets cut and were intentionally harassed. Some were demoted and received pay cuts. Others were penalized by being assigned distant work locations that added hours to their daily commute.
Their attorney, Nancy Erika Smith of Smith Mullin in Montclair, said all were fired without warning by email one afternoon in March, calling it “textbook retaliation.” Verrelli, who was elected president of Carpenters Local 254 in 2017, was removed by union officials in August.
“They purged anyone affiliated with John Ballantyne,” said Smith.
Union officials denied there was any retaliation.
“It is unfortunate that former employees would make such accusations about our union,” said Frank Mahoney, a spokesman for the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. “In the midst of a global pandemic, our council had to make the tough and unfortunate decisions many other unions, businesses, and organizations had to make regarding staffing levels.”
Mahoney said the council’s staffing levels decreased in every state it has geographic jurisdiction over, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.
“Our goal is to always make decisions that are in the best interest of our hard-working members in the field,” he said.
The influential trade union has been the focus of mounting questions since Ballantyne, now chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, charged in an October 2018 lawsuit that he had been fired from his high-profile job after raising questions about then-Carpenters Funds administrator George Laufenberg.
Not long after, Laufenberg — a former commissioner on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — was hit with a five-count federal indictment mirroring many of the charges in Ballantyne’s complaint. He was accused of embezzlement in connection with $1.5 million in pension funds, deferred compensation payments, excess annuity fund contributions, as well as conspiracy to embezzle with a “low-show” employee, and making a false statement in an annual financial report.
Laufenberg earned an annual salary of about $300,000.
The criminal case has yet to come to trial.
Late last year, meanwhile, a federal grand jury in New Jersey sent out new subpoenas to entities tied to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, according to an internal memo, and were served on the union, its pension fund, its pharmacy benefit manager, a union accounting firm and a construction company.
Ballantyne’s own civil lawsuit has since been settled, its terms undisclosed.
In the complaint filed Tuesday, Verrelli said he had been called a “traitor to the organization.”
In addition to Verrelli, others named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit included Justin Ballantyne, the son of John Ballantyne and a union employee for more than 15 years; Alex Lopez, who voted to approve an internal investigation into Laufenberg’s activities; Vanessa Salazar, who sought to increase the recruitment and retention of people of color and women, and Susan Schultz, who chaired a committee to create a network of active female union carpenters.
Smith said all five were long-term employees who had been mentored by Ballantyne, and were fired as other recently hired employees kept their jobs.
“It’s all pretty brazen,” she said.
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