Labor Department Sues Los Angeles-Area Cement Masons Local for Blocking Probe

Cement Masons logo Workers represented by Cement Masons Local 600 have helped put up a good many buildings in Southern California. But right now its members have a more immediate project on their hands: making sure they receive all promised benefits. And the U.S. Department of Labor wants to make that happen. Last Wednesday, the DOL filed a civil suit against various officers of the local trust funds to seek the reinstatement of a recently-fired union auditor and remove certain board members who administer the funds. Assistant Labor Secretary Phyllis Borzi explained the motive behind the action: “Workers must be free to participate in Department of Labor inquiries without fear of retaliation. By law, they have a right to report suspected violations to the department and must be allowed to cooperate with investigators.”

Local 600 of the Operative Plasterers & Cement Masons International Association, based in Bell Gardens, Calif., is a major force in area organized labor. Now with roughly 1,700 members, its workers have provided labor for such landmarks as Staples Center and Disney Hall in downtown Los Angeles. But apparently the union isn’t providing benefits spelled out in various collective bargaining agreements. The arrows appear to point toward Local 600 Business Manager Scott Brain. Last November the Los Angeles Times revealed that Brain was under investigation by the Labor Department for allegedly looking the other way while employers skipped scheduled payments to member health, pension and other benefit funds. He also reportedly diverted union dues to a mistress and retaliated against whistleblowers. The DOL has served subpoenas on the union and the trusts, obtaining records on several contractors that employed members of Local 600.

Brain has denied all wrongdoing. Yet at some point he will have to contend with allegations made by Cheryle Robbins, the former collections director and auditor for Local 600 trust funds. According to Robbins, Brain allowed contractors to avoid making millions of dollars in required benefit contributions in exchange for cash and/or other things of value. He also discouraged her from investigating the issue and eventually had her fired after she notified the Labor Department of missing funds. She since has filed a wrongful termination suit. Since 2008, the department has served subpoenas on the union and its trusts, obtaining a variety of documents which include financial records of 10 contractors employing local members. DOL investigators focused on two firms that allegedly failed to make a combined $4 million in contributions: the Simi Valley-based B&M Contractors Inc. and the Riverside-based A&G Custom Concrete and Repair, the latter of which is now defunct.

In several closed-door meetings, Ms. Robbins raised the issue of benefits withholding. At one meeting in particular, note the subpoenaed minutes, she and a trustee expressed concerns that Scott Brain was allowing A&G to withhold payments. Though a company representative denied the charge, Brain responded like someone in damage control mode. Robbins had told the L.A. Times that Brain confronted her on the office parking lot after that meeting, warning her not to press the issue. “He said I could lose my job,” she said. Also damaging to the case of Local 600, principals for B&M and A&G said that union representatives had led them to believe that their collective bargaining agreements required them to make benefits contributions only for some workers and then only under limited circumstances. Dave Moore, a partner in B&M, explained: “Nobody ever told us to make any payments.” Disputes over contribution shortfalls led to lawsuits resulting in the firms paying a combined $750,000, a figure that represented 19 percent of roughly $4 million owed.

The short-changing of Local 600 rank and file has an added soap opera twist. Among the allegations by the Labor Department, Brain spent union funds to carry on an affair with Melissa Cook, a San Diego-based attorney retained by the union trusts. He signed Cook’s checks and substantially increased her firm’s fees over time. Cook, who had represented the trusts in the B&M case, allegedly resigned soon after a federal agent called her last May and asked if she was having an affair. Court papers cite Cook as having stated the company owed $2.9 million to the union, though in a subsequent interview she stated the true figure was closer to the $400,000 that B&M eventually paid. Yet Robbins insists $2.9 million is the accurate figure, a sum she determined by examining company payroll records. Given the wide disparity in accounts, this is likely to be a corruption case with a long life ahead.