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Some members of Laborers Local 210 claim the government-backed cleanup of gangster influences from the union is a "witch hunt" that has gone too far.

But officials of the laborers' international union insist the cleanup hasn't gone far enough.

The Laborers International Union of North America Monday announced that it wants to increase its supervision of Local 210 by placing the controversial Buffalo local in trusteeship. A hearing officer, who will decide the issue, began listening to evidence Monday afternoon.

Some longtime members of the union are upset about the effort, charging that the international is engaging in discrimination against Italian-Americans.

John M. Curran, an attorney for the international, said a trustee is needed to run the local because people with organized crime ties are trying to regain power over the local and its assignment of workers.

The local has been run by a supervisor appointed by the international since April 1996, but further action is needed, Curran said. The international wants to take tighter control by putting a trustee in charge.

"We feel that organized crime figures or their associates would still like to reassert their control in Local 210," Curran said.

Before the international took charge of the local, the easiest and most lucrative job assignments for laborers on area construction projects most frequently went to friends and relatives of mob figures, Curran said.

"Now, the work is being spread around more fairly among more members of the union, as opposed to a few favored guys. And some people are very unhappy with that," he said.

Some union members strongly disagree with Curran's analysis.

Dozens associated with the union's old guard rallied outside Local 210's hall on Franklin Street Monday afternoon, just before the start of a hearing on the trusteeship question.

No cleanup was needed two years ago, and none is needed now, these members said, and they angrily denounced the international's efforts as being ineffective and discriminatory toward Italian-Americans.

When the international filed charges in June 1996, accusing 28 members of associating with gangsters, 27 of those charged were Italian-Americans, the critics noted.

"They're running a witch hunt here. They're saying anybody with a vowel on the end of their name must be tied to organized crime," said Mike Murphy, a Local 210 laborer since 1980. "The union ran better and was more democratic before the rats from the international took over."

Many of the union's 1,200 members want the right to vote on trusteeship proposal, said Marc Panepinto, a former Laborers member and now an organizer for the Service Employees International Union.

As it stands now, a hearing officer will decide whether a trustee will take over Local 210 after hearing evidence on how the local cleanup is going. The officer, Peter Vaira, began listening to evidence in a hearing at the union hall Monday. The hearing, open to union members but closed to the public, is to continue today.

"It's already been two years -- how long is this going to go on?" added Frank Ventura of Kenmore. "Let the membership decide -- what we want is a vote."

"I think its unjust," said Brian Reff, a member of Local 210 since 1994. "We'll never get our union back."

Union members told The Buffalo News that, in a decision issued last week, Vaira cleared six members who had been accused of violating union rules by associating with organized crime figures. The six are Nicholas Zendano, Salvatore Caci, Peter Capitano, Decimo Cisero, Edward Domino and Michael Giambra.

Zendano, 59, of Cheektowaga, said he and some other union members were wrongly accused of being mob associates.

He said it is unfair to brand someone as a mob associate just because they have friends whom the FBI targets in organized crime investigations.

"I'm not going to kid you, I knew a lot of people. I broke bread with these people, I played softball with people," Zendano said. "I also had a misdemeanor gambling conviction in 1977. Do all these things make me a mob associate? The accusation made by the international really hurt my family."

Out of the 28 people who were accused of associating with the mob, the hearing officer found the charges credible against 17 present and former members -- Joseph Todaro Jr., Frank "Butchie" BiFulco, Salvatore Cardinale, John Catanzaro, Leonard Falzone, Sam Frangiamore, Peter Gerace, Bart Mazzaro, Robert Panaro, Donald "Turtle" Panepinto, John and Joseph Pieri, Charles Pusateri, Daniel and Victor Sansanese, Louis and Vincent Sicurella.

Vaira dismissed the charges regarding several other members.

Some members of the local said Vaira's hearing on the 28 members was unfair, giving too much credibility to long-time government informers on the mob.

"That whole process was a kangaroo court, and he still cleared six people," said Marc Panepinto, who is the son of Donald Panepinto.

Curran declined to comment on Vaira's decision. But he said the international's actions were not based on ethnic discrimination, but on concern for the best interests of union members.

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