Local 933 of the American Federation of Government Employees for the last few years has been in financial shambles. The explanation lies at the top. The local’s leadership operated their union like a personal bank. A series of investigations, most recently by the Detroit News, reveal a disturbing pattern of embezzlement and other forms of malfeasance.
The problems of the local, which represents nearly 1,200 employees at John Dingell Veterans Hospital in Detroit, became apparent after Chetham Brazill, president of the local, left his position in December 2002. When first elected to office in 1997, Brazill inherited a union with a surplus of $66,000. Five years later he and his cronies had left the union in debt. The local had fallen behind by more than $50,000 in forwarding dues to AFGE national headquarters and more than $40,000 in insurance premiums to Colonial Life. At the behest of rank and file members of Local 933, the Detroit accounting firm of George Johnson & Co. reviewed the union’s financial records. The audit turned up tens of thousands of dollars in questionable spending, plus a pair of unauthorized personal loans to three union officers from the employees’ credit union. Soon after, the local conducted its own internal probe.
Union investigators, who had hospital jobs as well, found more than forwarding dues and insurance premiums in arrears. Union officers had cashed nearly $25,000 in checks from Colonial Life for (unrecorded) “administrative fees.” Additionally, two local financial officers close to Brazill, Belinda Steele and John Spillman, had used union credit cards to ring up some $38,000 in debt, not including finance charges and late fees. In December 2002 Brazill and other officers split $7,000 in stipends that rank and file already had voted to reject. In all, during Brazill’s tenure, union officials withdrew $126,000 without proper documentation. In response to these findings, AFGE National President John Gage banned Brazill from holding union office for five years, barred Steele and Spillman for life, and handed out one-year suspensions to three other officials. Steve Cohen, an attorney for the former officers, is appealing these actions.
Though Local 933 was a hothouse of corruption, the union’s national leadership deserves at least some of the blame. Throughout the Brazill era, the local consistently paid less to the AFGE national union than it withheld from members’ paychecks. Yet this came to light only after a member of the local inquired about her status in the national ranks and learned that she was not in good standing. National dues for some employees had not been paid for years. This case is far from closed. Brazill and his allies may face criminal charges. The local recently responded to a subpoena for information by a federal grand jury in Detroit. (Detroit News, 4/25).