Southern California Bosses Admit Embezzlement, NLPC Petitions for Probe

Two former leaders of the Riverside County, Cal., chapter of a statewide fire fighters union have reportedly been “disciplined” after an internal union probe showed they embezzled at least $5,000 of the chapter’s funds. Union spokesman Terry McHale said the ex-officers admitted they spent chapter money on personal uses — for apartment rent and computers — in 2001. McHale said the men,  whose names were not released, have signed agreements to reimburse the union and have their paychecks garnished if they fail to make  payments on time.

However, he said the union has not asked authorities to investigate. Many members know the identities of the two allegedly admitted embezzlers, and their reputations have been stained at the Cal. Dep’t of Forestry & Fire Protection, McHale claimed. “What was done was wrong, and it is being dealt with in the firmest possible way,” alleged McHale. “We’re an association of human beings, and sometimes human beings make mistakes.”

Nevertheless, the Nat’l Legal & Pol’y Ctr., a union corruption watchdog, petitioned both the U.S. Dep’ts of Labor and Justice Mar. 20 to open a criminal investigation into this apparent union corruption. The money was reportedly taken from the chapter’s benevolent fund, which is used to help burn victims and the families of ill, injured or deceased firefighters, which raises possibility that federal pension and benefit fund laws were violated. On Mar. 26, the U.S. Atty.’s Office in Los Angeles told NLPC that it has assigned Asst. U.S. Atty. Larry Ng to the case.

McHale confirmed the theft after an anonymous press release stated that money had been embezzled from the union. The release also said some bosses tried to cover up the theft and that county, state, and federal agencies had been notified. Roger Luebs, a county deputy district attorney, said that his office received the documents. However, Luebs did not say whether his office is looking into the case.

McHale said there was no cover-up and the theft was noticed and properly reported to state union representatives by Phil Rawlings, a Temecula-based firefighter who became chapter treasurer in Jan. The news release contained “absolutely false statements,” McHale said, but he acknowledged that the term “embezzlement” could accurately describe the unauthorized use of the money in this case. McHale claimed an independent audit will be conducted of the chapter’s finances and the results should be publicly available in May.  [Press-Enterprise 3/15/02]