N.J. Police announced Jan. 2 that they have charged five people with conspiring to steal from Atlantic City’s largest union, in an embezzlement scheme that allegedly drained at least $71,000 from the severance fund of Local 54 of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Int’l Union. Mariana Candelaria, who works for Garden State Benefit Servs. Inc., the company that administers the local’s severance and pension funds from desks inside Local 54’s office, was arrested on Dec. 21. Candelaria allegedly conspired with an ex-colleague and three outsiders by falsifying claims for severance payouts and then issuing and cashing the checks. Police charged Candelaria with embezzling more than $50,000, along with conspiracy, forgery, and theft by deception after an investigation by Detectives Edward Riegel and Brian Paige.
Local 54 vice president Al Cohen attempted to distance himself and other bosses from the thefts. He claimed that union members were the victims of a crime committed by a third party working inside the union office. “It’s important people realize this is a subcontractor,” he said. No one in the union has access to the computers inside Local 54 that are used by GSBS, Cohen said.
Also charged were Rhonda Jones, who reportedly left her job working for GSBS inside Local 54’s office last year; and Jaymes Browne, a friend of Candelaria who allegedly cashed more than $6,800 in fraudulent union checks and forged documents. Jaime Cambrelen, an acquaintance of Candelaria, also faces charges of forgery and fraudulent check-cashing. Another suspect, identified as Sinclair Caesar remains at large. He is wanted on charges of theft by deception in excess of $50,000, fraud and forgery. All five suspects have been charged with conspiracy. The probe is continuing in cooperation with the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and the U.S. Dep’t of Labor.
The timing of the arrests of Jones, Browne, and Cambrelen was unclear. News of Candelaria’s arrest was kept private for several days because of concerns that releasing the information would jeopardize the investigation. The investigation began as a minor fraud case, when authorities began looking into a severance check issued by GSBS to a union member who supposedly had worked for Tropicana Casino and Resort. But when the probe reportedly showed that the union member never had worked at Tropicana, detectives began following a trail of financial documents, allegedly finding many other fraudulent checks that were issued from Local 54’s severance fund starting in Mar. 2001. “Two detectives followed through with it and it blossomed into a major conspiracy,” Police Sgt. Michael Tullio said.
The arrests come as more bad news for Local 54 bosses, just weeks after an audit was released to union members that showed that Local 54’s net assets dropped by $742,000 to $412,256 in 2000, and two weeks before a court-ordered special officer election. In Oct., a federal judge in threw out the results of a June 1999 election, ruling that the union failed to mail notices of the election to 1,975 members and failed to send ballots to 1,596 members. [Press of Atlantic City 1/3/02]