For a half-decade, leaders of the Miami-Dade County local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees ran their union like a private slush fund. But as ex-leaders, they are paying the wages of their crimes. On April 20 four former officials of AFSCME Local 121 surrendered to the Dade County authorities, the result of a full investigation by county prosecutors and the inspector general into financial irregularities. A fifth ex-officer accused in the probe died last year.
According to the arrest affidavit, during the period 1997-2002 the five had embezzled roughly $350,000 in membership dues, mainly from county water and sewer department employees, and then lied about the missing money. The officials were supposed to ensure that $726,865 of the more than $1 million in dues collected over this time were sent to the union’s international and state parent organizations. But the leaders chose to divert about half of that money for personal use. Former president Rafael Mendez took in nearly $125,000, while the others collected about $225,000.
The scheme began to unravel in 2002 when Mendez, the secretary-treasurer and recording secretary were asked by another union official why they had not paid certain required fees. Mendez gave several explanations, including that they had to pay “expenses related to wining and dining County commissioners.” The recording secretary said no explanation was needed since they had been audited and had to pay taxes. After new leadership took over the local, they found its finances in disarray.
The four accused were being held at the Dade County jail on bonds ranging from $150,000 to $230,000 on charges of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy and grand theft. Rafael Mendez’s lawyer, Gina Mendez (no relation), says her client is “an innocent man being falsely accused.” [Miami Herald, 4/21/05]