The National Labor Relations Board ought to be about the last place to find anyone with a history of union corruption. But Richard Griffin (see photo), an NLRB member and former general counsel for the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), may be the exception. Griffin last October was named as a defendant in a federal racketeering suit filed by 10 members of IUOE Local 501 in Los Angeles. The complaint alleges Griffin, during his tenure representing the international union, was complicit in a “scheme to defraud [the local] out of revenue, cost savings and membership.” Dozens of union members, the suit charges, engaged in kickbacks, bribery, threats and extortion. Griffin purportedly was involved in embezzlement and a cover-up. His personal attorney calls the action “frivolous.” Yet the evidence isn’t so easily ignored. And it’s been getting lots of attention these past few weeks.
Richard Griffin right now isn’t in the best position to withstand scrutiny. For one thing, he owes his NLRB position to a temporary recess appointment – one of three made to the board by President Obama on January 4, 2012 – whose legitimacy is in doubt (the swearing-in ceremonies were five days later). The normally five-member board had operated for much of the previous four years with just two members. And President Obama, eager to resolve the shortfall, named Sharon Block (Democrat) and Terence Flynn (Republican) along with Griffin (Democrat) as members, thus sidestepping Senate confirmation hearings or background checks. The problem, as National Legal and Policy Center has explained in detail elsewhere, is that Congress was not formally in recess on the date of the appointments. Ambiguity over the definition of “recess” in short order led to a legal challenge to the appointments, Noel Canning v. NLRB, now in federal appeals court.
A second reason for Griffin’s vulnerability is that the labor organization he represented for many years, the International Union of Operating Engineers, has a long history of corruption and violence. IUOE Locals 14 and 15, for example, had partnered with Genovese and Colombo crime family soldiers and associates to inflate the cost of various New York City construction projects; federal investigators and prosecutors broke up the racket about a decade ago. In upstate New York, members of Buffalo’s Local 17 routinely intimidated nonunion employers and workers who didn’t succumb to union demands. And the former president of Operating Engineers Local 68 in northern New Jersey, Dennis Giblin, son of then-International Union President Vincent Giblin, pleaded guilty in 2009 to kickback and embezzlement charges. Until beginning his appointment, Richard Griffin served the IUOE in a variety of capacities starting in 1983, eventually becoming its general counsel. If he wasn’t necessarily a participant in these and other instances of corruption, he hardly denounced them either.
As it turns out, there is a strong possibility that Griffin was corrupt. The focal point is Operating Engineers Local 501, which is based in Los Angeles and represents workers in the Los Angeles and Las Vegas areas. A federal lawsuit filed in Los Angeles federal court three months ago by 10 union dissenters alleges that Griffin intervened in a local investigation to manipulate local operations “through a pattern of racketeering activity.” The plaintiffs are seeking $7.5 million in damages for violations of the RICO and Landrum-Griffin Act, and of laws against aiding and abetting.
The facts are as follows. In 2009, then-local business manager James McLaughlin uncovered a pattern of questionable expenditures by the local apprenticeship training director, Dennis Lundy. Rather than sit on the evidence, McLaughlin brought in two fellow union officials, plus an outside auditor and lawyer, to investigate. During six months during 2007, reads the suit, Lundy charged about $26,000 to the training fund for food, travel and other expenses unrelated to union business. A sizable portion of that money went for “expensive lunches with his mistress.” The year before, concluded investigators, Lundy withdrew even larger amounts for suspect purposes, some of which included “false submissions used to embezzle funds for a cosmetic breast augmentation procedure Lundy obtained” for his mistress, who also was a union employee.
Faced with this evidence, McLaughlin and other investigators called on Lundy to repay misappropriated funds. Unfortunately, the former was on a shorter leash than he realized. The lawsuit alleges that the aforementioned IOUE President Vince Giblin, a “personal friend” of Lundy, called McLaughlin to demand that he “drop” the probe. McLaughlin refused. That didn’t sit well with Giblin, who later on would tell another Local 501 official: “I told [McLaughlin] to make that Lundy thing disappear and he never did. That lazy fat fuck has got to go!” Giblin also allegedly expressed an intent to “kill or have these three union officers killed.” Thankfully, he didn’t go that far. But in June 2009 Giblin did remove McLaughlin from a position in the international union’s pension fund. He also threatened at various points to strip Local 501 of its members and place the local under trusteeship unless McLaughlin resigned as business manager.
Here is where Richard Griffin allegedly entered the picture. According to the lawsuit, Griffin passed along Giblin’s threats to McLaughlin and others. At one point, an unnamed attorney told McLaughlin “that he had to make a decision at that moment and to not bother with a counter-offer because Mr. Griffin told him that Mr. Laughlin had to ‘take it or leave it’ and if Mr. Laughlin didn’t ‘take it’ Mr. Griffin would next demand [the third local investigator’s] resignation or termination.” There wasn’t much subtlety in the way this union did business.
Griffin, who was served with a complaint and court summons at his Washington, D.C. home on December 4, hasn’t been available for comment. But his Los Angeles-based personal attorney, Fredric Woocher, has. “From the information I’ve been given,” Woocher said, “the allegations are frivolous up and down the entire 80 pages of the complaint.” Griffin, he emphasized, “is peripheral to the gist of these allegations. He’s mentioned in this one series of phone conversations. He was playing a role as an attorney.” Yet not only Griffin but also Lundy and Giblin have kept mum. And the details appear too specific to have been plucked out of thin air. The complaint repeatedly states that the international union’s demands were personally ordered by Griffin. It was Griffin, say union dissenters, who served as a courier for Giblin’s threats. Griffin allegedly communicated to McLaughlin’s legal counsel that in order for Local 501 to be left alone by the international union, McLaughlin not only would have to resign, but also fire Finn Pette, his protégé and partner in the Lundy investigation. When McLaughlin refused, Griffin at that point targeted a third unnamed local member involved in the probe.
A number of people want to know more about Griffin’s history. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a veteran of investigations into union criminal behavior (including one of then-NLRB member Craig Becker), had sent Griffin a letter back in July asking him for details about his ties to members of various IUOE locals (a list that did not include Local 501) during his time as general counsel. He specifically requested that Griffin furnish a “detailed list” of all issues on which Griffin had worked pertaining to “fraud, embezzlement or other financial misconduct” by the IUOE and local affiliates. Griffin responded, but mentioned no specific instances of wrongdoing. He did tell Hatch, however, that he “promoted a culture and practice of the highest ethical standards, and strengthened the internal mechanisms for dealing criminal conduct” during his time at the union. Such words should be taken with a grain of salt. The IUOE is well-known, even by union standards, for its lack of transparency. It’s even imposed a gag rule on any members who criticize leadership over the Internet. Griffin at one point threatened to fine members who challenged the rule in court.
Richard Griffin’s temporary National Labor Relations Board appointment doesn’t run out until the end of this calendar year. He’ll be able to amplify his board salary with periodic payments under two different Operating Engineers pension plans, plus a lump sum payment equal to three weeks of his annual IUOE salary of $376,778. As for NLRB, it remains short-handed. With the resignation of Terence Flynn (Republican) last July (following a letter of resignation two months earlier), and more recently, the expiration in December of the term of Brian Hayes (also a Republican), the board is down to three members – Griffin, Block and Chairman Mark Pearce. The latter, by the way, is a former attorney for IUOE Local 17. All are Democrats. As befits political custom, the two remaining appointees almost certainly will be Republicans, thus creating a 3-2 party split. Even if the appointments of Griffin and Block are upheld in the Noel Canning case, it won’t be for a while before NLRB can get a full handle on its workload. President Obama could have headed the problem off with more due diligence. But he had political IOUs of his own – and still does.
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