Former ironworkers business agent pleads guilty to arson, extortion

Edward Sweeney, involved in the Ironworkers case, arrives at the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on September 30, 2014. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )

A union leader painted in court filings as the man at the center of much of the corruption within Ironworkers Local 401 admitted his role Tuesday in the group's long-standing efforts to maintain its grip on city construction jobs through violence and intimidation.

Prosecutors described Edward Sweeney, the union's one-time business agent overseeing work in Philadelphia, as "one of the most vocal supporters of using violence, arson, and other criminal conduct to force nonunion contractors into using union labor."

"I hate to say it," he once fantasized to a union colleague in a conversation about a rival union, caught on an FBI wiretap. "You just want to get cancer so you can go there and just shoot every [expletive] down there. You just want to get cancer and just go there and shoot everybody."

But as he pleaded guilty to counts of racketeering conspiracy, extortion, and arson before U.S. District Judge Michael Baylson, the 55-year-old Sweeney showed none of that venom.

Throughout Tuesday's hearing, Baylson ticked off a list of some of the city's most notable acts of union sabotage in recent years. Sweeney nodded, agreeing that he had either overseen or participated in all.

The 2012 torching of a Quaker meetinghouse under construction in Chestnut Hill? He gave the OK. The extortion of a company building a Center City communications tower? He strong-armed builders into hiring his colleagues for no-work jobs. An attempted arson at a construction site in Malvern? Sweeney provided the torch.

"I just want to take responsibility for my actions," he told Baylson.

Sweeney was the latest in a parade of ironworkers to plead guilty in the racketeering conspiracy case that has ensnared 12 members, including the union's longtime head, Joseph Dougherty.

Dougherty has maintained that he did nothing wrong and is scheduled for trial next year. But since last week, five other union members have admitted roles in various acts of sabotage across the city.

Minutes before Sweeney's turn before the judge Tuesday, Shawn Bailey, 34, also pleaded guilty to one count of extortion stemming from the group's sabotage at the construction site of a Southwest Philadelphia warehouse - an attack carried out at Sweeney's behest.

But if Bailey engaged in what colleagues referred to as "nightwork" to impress his union elders, Sweeney turned to violence and intimidation to maintain his position after a decades-long career.

Plea documents paint him as a man pinned in from all sides. As the union's Philadelphia business agent, Sweeney was assigned to drum up work for ironworkers.

But as the 2008 recession set in, construction jobs dried up, contractors became less willing to bend to union demands, and the lack of work left one-time allies questioning his effectiveness and drawing up plans to challenge him for his job, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Livermore said in court filings.

He became the target of ridicule at union meetings, and rumors began swirling about his drinking habits.

Desperate to hang on to what territory he had left, Sweeney waged a one-man war to fight back against those seeking to edge him out.

When tensions flared with the builders of the Goldtex Apartments at 12th and Wood Streets, he organized a picket line that devolved into chaos, with ironworkers blockading access to the construction site. On other occasions, he slashed tires and superglued locks on trucks belonging to contractors who refused to acquiesce.

When those tactics did not work, Sweeney turned to "the rat" - a giant inflatable rodent that union workers brought to their picket lines, according to court documents.

Even builders willing to compromise were rebuffed unless they conceded fully to the ironworkers' demands. During a dispute last year over an apartment building near 31st and Spring Garden Streets, Sweeney rejected the contractor's offer to put one or two ironworkers on the payroll for unnecessary work.

With the backing of Dougherty, prosecutors said, Sweeney pushed for all the jobs or none. Eventually, the contractor agreed to subcontract with a union builder, sacrificing all his profits in the process.

"If he puts [the building] up and gets away with it, we're tearing it the f- down in broad daylight," Dougherty told Sweeney in a wiretapped conversation. "We're not losing in Center City, man."

Competition with the rival Carpenters union, which Sweeney believed was poaching in Ironworkers territory, sent him into riot mode during a July 2013 dispute at another Center City construction site.

He organized a crew to block their access to the site and ordered what he called union "goons" down to the scene.

Later he bragged to other union members about grabbing a carpenter "by the throat" and throwing another's tools down an elevator shaft.

"We don't leave," he vowed in an exchange quoted in his plea documents, "unless the cops come and lock everyone up."

Now, Sweeney stands to serve substantially more time behind bars than he likely expected at the time.

He faces a minimum of 15 years in federal prison at a sentencing hearing scheduled for January.