Florida Boss Charged with Racketeering, Embezzlement

South Fla. union boss Walter J. “Buster” Browne pled not guilty Nov. 3 to a 40-page federal indictment accusing him and his sister, Patricia B. Devaney, of running a racketeering scheme that milked more than $400,000 from the union he heads and four companies. Browne is president of the Nat’l Fed’n of Public & Private Employees (a.k.a., Marine Eng’rs’ Beneficial Ass’n Dist. 1) headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, which was founded in 1968 by his father Charles “Chuckie” Browne. Devaney was union staffer for her brother.

The 22-count indictment alleges that starting in 1994, Browne and Devaney used their union posts to “dominate and control its operation for their personal gain.” They are accused of engaging in a pattern of criminal activity consisting of mail fraud,  bank fraud, embezzlement, gambling, and unlawful labor practices.  Browne, wearing a plaid shirt and looking rumpled after a night in federal custody, was asked by U.S. Magis. Judge Barry Seltzer whether he understood the charges. “Yes, I do,” said Browne, who also told reporters: “What’s to say? I’m not gonna try my case in the newspapers … unless you’re on the jury.”

In Apr. 2000, William J. Coleman, owner of a cargo handling firm, Coleary Transport, pled guilty to violating the Labor Mgmt. Relations Act by paying a $2,000 bribe to Browne. Browne admitted accepting the money, but claimed it was for lobbying services and had nothing to do with the union. The grand jury still included that as an alleged racketeering act in its indictment. Browne is accused of similar violations by taking and/or seeking bribes from Hvide Marine (n.k.a. Seabulk Int’l) ($263,000); SeaAmerica Cruise Lines ($50,000), and Int’l Cruises ($12,500). Hvide has pled guilty to bribery. The other firms have not been charged.

Browne is also charged with defrauding the union by submitting false entertainment vouchers, and by using union funds to pay his personal airline tickets, dinners, and phone expenses. On one trip, Browne allegedly went to Detroit for a meeting with Anthony LaPiana, Jr., according to the indictment. The Teamsters’ Independent Review Bd. has reportedly identified LaPiana as a member of the Detroit Mafia. Browne was also charged with running high-stakes poker games at a union hall, a state misdemeanor. Reportedly, federal agents believed the games were used to funnel money to Browne, but that higher charge couldn’t be proved.

Devaney faces similar charges: submitting false vouchers, buying airplane tickets, and taking a $30,000 union-owned car. She is also charged with embezzling $116,000 from the union over 3.5 years by issuing unauthorized checks, which she would later forge, to herself, her daughter, and husband. Browne and Devaney face up to 20 years and a $500,000 fine if convicted of racketeering. Both were released after posting personal surety bonds of $150,000 each. The case has been assigned to U.S. Dist. Judge Daniel T.K. Hurley (S.D. Fla., Clinton).

The union’s sloppy accounting of its credit cards led to the prosecution of general counsel Gilbert Carrillo, who pled guilty to a misdemeanor of failing to maintain union records in Oct. 2001 and is cooperating with investigators.

Not included were any charges relating to health insurance contracts awarded by the Broward County (Fla.) School Bd. while Browne was a member of the board’s insurance committee. Neither were there any charges related to a Broward license tag agency with ties to Brown. In 1999, a grand jury subpoenaed records from the School Board; HIP Health Plan of Fla. Inc.; a lobbying firm called Reg’l Consultants, run by Browne friend Andrew J. DiBattista; another lobbying firm called F.C.O. Inc., owned by Broward AFL-CIO union leader and Pembroke Pines City Commissioner Frank C. Ortis; and First Broward Auto Tag Agency.

Separately, in 1996, Browne pled guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mail tampering in an alleged scheme to rig a 1988 union vote. In 1993, Browne was acquitted by a judge of federal mail fraud charges in Ft. Lauderdale.  [Broward Daily Bus. Rev. 11/5/01; Sun-Sent. (Ft. Lauderdale) 11/3/01]