Southern California Independent Union Boss Convicted of $800K Embezzlement

The Romeros no longer are a family that stays together let alone steals together. On February 12, John S. Romero, former president of United Industrial and Service Workers of America (UISWA), was convicted by a jury in Los Angeles federal court of 14 felony charges related to the theft of nearly $800,000 from the health care plan of the Colton (San Bernardino County), Calif.-based union. His wife, son and daughter already have testified for the prosecution after pleading guilty to various charges. The four were arrested and indicted five years ago following an investigation by the Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards, Office of Inspector General and Employee Benefits Security Administration. Sentencing for the elder John Romero is set for April 27. He faces up to 130 years in prison.

National Legal and Policy Center has covered this case before (here and here). John S. Romero, now 73, a resident of Loma Linda, Calif., ran the UISWA, an independent union representing workers in various occupations in Southern California’s Inland Empire region. It was a family business all but in name. He had help from his wife, Evelyn Romero, now 71, who in 2014 succeeded him as president. Their two adult children, John J. and Danae Romero, now 55 and 42, respectively, also were union officials. With little or no accountability, the family had a virtual license to steal. And according to investigators, steal is exactly what they did. In January 2015, a federal grand jury charged them with 40 counts related to the looting of a combined roughly $900,000 from union health care and general funds and then concealing the thefts on annual reports to the U.S. Department of Labor. The four were arrested a week later.

Family dealings during 2008-14 had left a long paper trail. For starters, John Romero Sr. allegedly diverted more than $310,000 in health plan assets (he was a plan trustee as well as a union president) to two properties that he owned through a Nevada-based construction company. Additionally, he used more than $300,000 in health plan funds to enhance family salaries. He also embezzled $40,000 to pay criminal defense lawyers who had represented him in a separate case; embezzled another $110,000 to cover a civil judgment against him and his son; and dipped into health plan assets to pay off a $25,000 loan on his son’s car. And for an encore, he placed more than $100,000 in union receipts and disbursements in a secret bank account from which he made regular payments to his mistress. This latter revelation did not endear him to Mrs. Romero, who is now his ex-wife.  

Romero got away with his pilferage for so long in large measure because he appointed “yes” men as health plan trustees with no prior experience. In addition, he misled the plan’s third-party administrators into making improper withdrawals on his behalf. The pattern of financial abuse began to unravel in early 2013, when the Labor Department received an anonymous phone call alleging irregularities in union benefit plans. The DOL proceeded to conduct a full-scale probe which in turn led to the indictments of January 2015. As it turned out, John S. Romero and his son each had pleaded guilty several years earlier to one count of filing false financial statements with respect to a separate labor organization, the Amalgamated Industrial Workers Union.

The daughter, Danae, was the first to break. In March 2017, she pleaded guilty to one count of theft in connection with the disappearance of benefit funds. Her brother and mother would follow with guilty pleas of their own. John Romero Sr. preferred to take his chances with a trial. It wasn’t a smart move. Prosecutors, for one, had lowered their estimate of the alleged thefts from around $900,000 to $800,000 to reduce the possibility of a not guilty verdict. On February 12, after a five-day trial, a federal jury found him guilty on one count of conspiracy to commit theft or embezzlement, 12 counts of theft or embezzlement, and one count of concealing more than $100,000 in financial information on DOL reporting forms.

Securing a conviction of John S. Romero had to overcome a couple of obstacles. First, he tried to get the charges against him thrown out, arguing that being charged simultaneously with conspiracy to embezzle and embezzlement per se constituted double jeopardy. A district court rejected this claim. A panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected the claim last August. Second, Romero allegedly had intimidated a number of witnesses who testified against him, something that was not public knowledge until after the verdicts were read. U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips ordered Romero into custody, citing the danger he posed to the public. One might add that he posed a danger to the health of union members.