L.A. Local Boss Testifies at Trial; Reveals Labor’s Political Ties

Labor leaders have been called many names, but “naive” hasn’t been among the more common of them. Yet Janett Humphries, formerly one of Los Angeles’ more powerful union officials, made naivete her prime line of defense in her recent criminal trial. Humphries for more than a decade had been president of Service Employees International Union Local 99. She enjoyed close ties to Martin Ludlow, a former Los Angeles City Council Member and also ex-head of the 825,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Those ties proved too close. Federal prosecutors early this year charged Humphries, 63, with misusing her office to provide financial aid to Ludlow’s successful 2003 city council election campaign. Ludlow pleaded guilty this March to conspiracy to divert union funds to the campaign. Humphries chose to take her federal case to trial; she pleaded guilty to two separate local charges. In light of her recent testimony, she might be wishing she hadn’t.

Prosecutors say that Humphries conspired to exceed the City’s $500-per-candidate, per-election legal limit on political contributions by paying Ludlow campaign workers out of Local 99 money. She allegedly provided a cell phone for Ludlow; committed perjury for failing to disclose assistance to Ludlow on campaign forms; and used union funds to pay for air travel expenses for herself, family members and a friend. When union auditors questioned whether those campaign workers did any work for SEIU 99, which represents workers for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the campaign workers produced phony reports – including memos on the state budget and a report on school board elections. But Humphries, her lawyers and certain witnesses asserted at her two-week trial she had been a mere bit player in a political machine. What’s more, they say, she lacked the intelligence to direct the union. At one point on the witness stand, Humphries stated she didn’t understand the meaning of “under penalty of perjury.”

Such testimony, needless to say, speaks less than well of Humphries. More importantly, as with the Brian McLaughlin case, it suggests an uncomfortable commingling of union and political activity. Humphries’ co-counsel, Ricardo Torres II, told jurors in his closing statement, “The testimony has raised serious flags about the integrity of union politics in Los Angeles.” Ken Holmer, an accountant who represents unions, testified that his firm routinely had organized labor officials sign blank campaign disclosure forms; his staff would fill in amounts of contributions later. He added that union leaders travel so frequently that it often isn’t possible to get signatures on completed forms and still file them in a timely manner. Several witnesses, including top union officials, stated that unions are so involved in electoral politics that it can be difficult to tell where union work ends and campaign work begins. While the sum of union funds misused by Ludlow and Humphries – about $36,000 – wasn’t all that much, any reforms that result from this affair may save a lot more in terms of union dues no longer routed to political war chests. (Los Angeles Times, 10/27/06).