Los Angeles SEIU Boss Removed; Stern Seeks Outside Help in Probe

It’s understandable why Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, has been nervous lately. The union’s 160,000-member Los Angeles affiliate, the United Long-Term Care Workers, also known as Local 6434, has been the target of reported investigations by the U.S. Department of Labor and the House of Representatives following revelations that its president, Tyrone Freeman, engaged in a pattern of misconduct. Freeman had taken a paid leave of absence in order to facilitate an internal SEIU probe. About the last thing Stern wants is for Congress and the executive branch to come down on his union. 


Now the verdict from headquarters is in: Freeman indeed misappropriated local funds. And the Washington, D.C.-based international union, not taking any chances, on September 17 removed him from the local payroll. It will decide, pending a hearing, whether to permanently dismiss him. Headquarters also removed Freeman’s top aide, Matthew Maldonado, and three other local staffers. The next stage for rebuilding credibility – instituting long-term reforms – will be more difficult.Toward that end, Stern has enlisted the help of two labor organizations with a wide reputation as reformers. Yet the heads of these organizations are wondering if he has some unspoken motives.


The most recent issue of Union Corruption Update reported on apparently extensive corruption in Tyrone Freeman’s union. Freeman, 38, had ascended to the leadership of the United Long-Term Care Workers at the turn of the decade. With support from Stern, he combined aggressive consolidation and organizing to build the home health workers’ union into a major force. Unfortunately, he also ran the local as a favor factory. Los Angeles Times reporter Paul Pringle published a series of exposes revealing that Local 6434, along with an allied charity, awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars in contracts to his wife, mother-in-law and a mutual friend during the last couple years. The union also spent hundreds of thousands more on a golf tournament, dinner parties and other events. 


President Stern has made clear he’s in full damage-control mode, announcing plans for a new code of ethics and an internal oversight commission. In addition, he is soliciting advice from the Association for Union Democracy (AUD) and Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), each well-known for their activism against union corruption. Yet though their respective leaders are willing to work with the SEIU, they are wondering why it’s taken so long. “Why does he need a new code of ethics?” asked Herman Benson, founder of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Association for Union Democracy. “People didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong? It’s preposterous.” TDU national organizer Ken Paff stated that the Service Employees should have reined in the spending practices of the Los Angeles local long ago. He asked: “How could they not know?  Hey, spending a lot of money at a fancy cigar place.  How could you miss that?” He also expressed concern over the fact that Stern’s inquiry apparently included a probe into possible fraud committed by West Coast rival Sal Rosselli. Stern earlier had moved to put Rosselli’s Oakland, Calif.-based 140,000-member health care union under trusteeship. “The conflict he has with Sal Rosselli is a political conflict,” remarked AUD’s Benson. “Stern is utilizing the corruption scandal to give himself cover for the action against Rosselli.”


The international union denies it has ulterior political motives. On September 3, Stern released a statement indicating his union would “seek opinions from a diverse group of people, including those who do not always agree with us, so that we can make the best decisions for our rank and-file-members.” Whatever the outcome of these roundtable discussions, Freeman isn’t likely to keep his job. Common sense would dictate that Stern’s main point of conducting an investigation was to pave the way for a likely dismissal of Freeman. Stern isn’t taking chances. In addition to working with labor reform groups, Stern has enlisted the help of former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp.   


As if Stern doesn’t have enough to worry about, on August 28, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, announced that a committee panel would be examining spending practices of SEIU Local 6434. “Our committee takes these reported allegations seriously, and we plan to thoroughly review this matter,” he said. Rep. Miller, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is union-friendly, though he’s been known to have disagreements from time to time. Whether the SEIU’s roughly $10,000 contribution to Miller during the last election cycle will affect the result remains to be seen.          

Tyrone Freeman isn’t the only Los Angeles SEIU official on the hot seat. His chief of staff during the period of malfeasance, Rickman Jackson, now head of SEIU Healthcare Michigan, has taken a paid leave of absence pending the results of an internal investigation by headquarters. The Michigan affiliate, formed last year through a merger, represents more than 55,000 nurses, home health workers and other health care employees. A nonprofit housing corporation founded by Freeman allegedly used the address of a Bell Gardens, Calif. dwelling unit; property records show the residence is owned by Jackson. Through e-mails, Jackson has indicated no comment. Yet another leading Los Angeles SEIU official, Annelle Grajeda, also has stepped aside as the international union investigates a scandal described in the next article. For Andrew Stern, the pressure never stops. (Los Angeles Times, 8/29/08, 9/4/08, 9/18; other sources).