Louisiana Suit Alleges Unions Misused $4 Million Federal Grant, Shredded Records

A lawsuit filed Apr. 2 accuses a group of labor unions of scheming to misuse a $4 million federal grant then firing the veteran mariner who tried to blow the whistle on them. Ex-Gulf Coast Mariners Ass’n training manager Capt. Kenneth P. Puckett filed the suit in E. Baton Rouge Parish under La.’s whistleblower law, which protects workers who report unlawful acts by their supervisors. Puckett claims he repeatedly urged managers to abide by rules of a federal grant meant to offer vital safety training to mariners. He claims union bosses misused the grant money for profit and to promote union organizing efforts in the Houma-Thibodaux area and S. La. offshore oil and marine industries.

Puckett took his complaints to La. AFL-CIO boss John “Red” Bourg, but Bourg allegedly told Puckett simply to follow directions and refrain from talking to the U.S. Dep’t of Labor, which awarded the grant. In Nov., Puckett was fired from his job as the grant’s training manager. “Not only were Capt. Puckett’s objections and concerns ignored, the union-affiliated organizations retaliated against him,” the suit says. Puckett is asking for damages related to his firing, as well as compensation for lost income, expenses, mental anguish, and damage to his reputation. Defendants include Bourg; the AFL-CIO; Seafarers Int’l Union of N. Am.;  the La. Human Res. Dev. Inst., the nonprofit group that won the grant; GCMA, a Houma, La., based non-profit maritime lobbying group;  Lafourche Merchant Marine Training Servs., a Larose, La., based maritime training school; and the principles of those two organizations, Penny Danos Adams and Ray T. Danos, respectively. Puckett is a retired U.S. Army warrant officer who served as a Panama Canal port captain and a senior instructor for the U.S. Army. He has 35 years experience as a pilot and instructor in the maritime industry, the suit states.

In 2000, DOL awarded the $4 million grant to LHRDI of Baton Rouge, which is a union-affiliated nonprofit corporation. Bourg serves as president, and his son-in-law, Mike Chapman, is executive director. LHRDI’s job under the grant was to arrange for safety training for mariners. After LHRDI won the grant, it hired Puckett as its training manager. Puckett claims LHRDI worked with labor unions to use the $4 million grant “to promote their union organizing activities and financial interests.” Allegedly, Grant managers hired unqualified trainers and issued fraudulent training certificates. LHRDI allegedly handed control over it to GCMA, a group of labor organizations that included the national and La. AFL-CIO. “They decided who would be hired and fired,” the suit says. “They jointly decided what services would be offered, where the services would be offered, and which vendors would provide those services.”

Further, on Apr. 20, La. District Judge Tim Kelley grant Puckett’s motion to block the defendants from destroying  relevant documents and computer files in the case and to turn over any remaining copies of already destroyed documents.

Puckett’s motion was based on a sworn statement from an ex-employee of one of the grant’s other participants, a trade group called GCMA of Houma. Michael D. Hill’s job was to recruit maritime employees for training under the grant. In his affidavit, Hill claims a LHRDI employee told him the staff was shredding documents in response to Puckett’s suit. “In our discussion, Ms. [Bobette] Apple stated that the LHRDI had been ‘shredding’ large numbers of documents at its locations in Baton Rouge and Houma in response to the lawsuit,” Hill said. “Ms. Apple further stated that she did not approve of the document destruction and that she had been ostracized by her superiors for expressing her concerns.”

According to Bob Alario, president of Offshore Marine Servs. Ass’n , his organization represents many companies and their employees and has the only U.S. Coast Guard-approved training courses to train mariners. OMSA has been critical of the GCMA and predicted that it would lead to a unionization push in the area. He also was critical of the unions’ grant application. “They misrepresented so many facts in that application,” Alario said. “If this lawsuit proves out, it will confirm everything we said we were afraid of with regard to the unions and those involved in it.”

Louis Robein, a Metairie labor lawyer who has represented the Adamses, said, “It’s a lawsuit essentially prompted by large institutional interests–in this case the boat companies–intended to punish or retaliate against union activism.” [Courier (Houma, La.) 4/3/01; Advocate (Baton Rouge) 4/3, 5/11/01]