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Former Local 17 leader gets prison for role in reign of violence

Mark N. Kirsch was sentenced to 36 months in federal prison Wednesday for his role in a campaign of violence, vandalism and intimidation carried out by members of Operating Engineers Local 17.

Sentencing guidelines called for a term of 10 years to 12½ years for the union’s former president and business manager, but Senior U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny said that was “greater than is necessary in this case.”

Skretny cited Kirsch’s good deeds that were attested to in letters from neighbors and community organizations in which he was involved.

At the same time, Skretny excoriated Kirsch for his role what prosectors described as a conspiracy of intimidation and violence against non-union contractors in a period stretching from 1997 to 2007. Kirsch failed in his role as union leader, the judge said, even if he was not blamed for directly carrying out the violence or vandalism. And his conduct had far-reaching consequences on the region, Skretny said.

“I think it set back the development of the Western New York business community for decades,” Skretny said. “It slowed good job opportunities instead of creating good job opportunities.”

A dozen Local 17 officers and members were charged in the case in 2008. Seven pleaded guilty, four were acquitted, and Kirsch was convicted at trial in March 2014.

Before he was sentenced, Kirsch addressed Skretny about the impact that the long-running case had on him and on his family members, several of whom were seated in the courtroom. “These past eight years have been very tough on my family,” he said. “I’d really like to apologize to them for what they’ve been through.”

Kirsch, 57, of East Aurora, also said he regretted how the case had reflected on Local 17 and organized labor in general. And he thanked Skretny for allowing him to remain free on bail following his conviction so he could continue to support his family.

Skretny said he took into consideration 27 letters of support he received from Kirsch’s family members, friends and others with whom he has worked. He said it was clear that Kirsch has “a close-knit family, more so than most these days,” and that they were “blue collar to the core,” like his own family.

Defense attorney Brian M. Melber spoke about his client’s commitment to groups such as the Independence Foundation and a soup kitchen. He said Kirsch was known for mowing neighbors’ lawns and clearing their driveways of snow. He replaced part of the roof of an older couple’s home, and then refused payment for the work.

“I think we’ve determined that Mark has led not just a good, but exemplary life,” Melber said.

Federal prosecutor Timothy C. Lynch urged Skretny to impose a sentence within the guidelines to send a strong message of deterrence and to hold Kirsch accountable.

“It wasn’t just tacit approval,” Lynch said of Kirsch’s role. “This was Mark Kirsch’s way of running Local 17, and everybody got in line.”

Skretny said all of Kirsch’s good works were admirable but were “eclipsed” by his conduct when he was president of Local 17. “You do have to pay a price,” he said.

Kirsch was also ordered to pay restitution to two contractors totaling $184,000. Skretny did not immediately order Kirsch imprisoned. Kirsch’s attorneys have 14 days to file a notice of appeal, and Melber said they are considering whether to take that step.


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