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Complex tale of union and politics is in jury's hands

A former SEIU official is accused of helping divert funds to a political campaign.

October 27, 2006|Joe Mathews | Times Staff Writer

A union president who testified that she does not understand the meaning of "perjury."

Workers who move easily between the Legislature and local political campaigns, stopping only to create phony reports so they could draw paychecks from a union.

Union leaders who routinely sign, under penalty of perjury, blank forms disclosing their campaign contributions and trust others to fill in the correct data.

These and other purported details of how unions sometimes practice politics were described during testimony in a two-week criminal trial that concluded this week in downtown Los Angeles.

Although focusing on a relatively obscure union official and narrow points of campaign finance law, the trial of 63-year-old Janett Humphries -- former president of the union local that represents Los Angeles school workers -- raised questions about both labor and political life in Southern California.

Jurors began deliberations Thursday on four charges against Humphries, who was president of Service Employees International Union Local 99 for more than a decade. She is accused of conspiring to break the $500 legal limit on political contributions by having her union pay for campaign workers and a cellphone for Martin Ludlow during his successful 2003 campaign for the Los Angeles City Council.

Ludlow, a close friend of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's, resigned his council seat to head the county labor federation in 2005. He pleaded guilty in a related case earlier this year and testified against Humphries during the trial.

In addition to conspiracy charges, Humphries is charged with two counts of perjury for failing to disclose her assistance to Ludlow on campaign forms. Lawyers close to the case say she is unlikely to face jail time if convicted, though she may be in more jeopardy next month when she is scheduled to go on trial in federal court on related charges of conspiracy and embezzlement from her union.

Humphries' union has long been a behind-the-scenes political power, providing muscle and phone-bank services for local and national candidates. In her defense, Humphries and her lawyers have argued that she is being prosecuted for the routine maneuverings of a larger union political machine in which she was a minor cog.

Her lawyers and some witnesses flatly asserted that Humphries, a former special education assistant in Los Angeles schools, lacked the intelligence to direct the union local and was therefore incapable of doing what she had been charged with.

On the stand, Humphries said she did not understand the meaning of "under penalty of perjury."

One of Humphries' lawyers, former City Councilman Nick Pacheco, was defeated by Villaraigosa in a 2003 reelection bid. Pacheco and co-counsel Ricardo Torres II sought to put the city's rising union movement on trial, arguing that despite the campaign finance laws, union and campaign resources are often commingled.

Torres told jurors in his closing statement that Ludlow and other political operatives "were doing what unions do" during the 2003 race.

In an interview outside of court, Torres said, "The testimony has raised serious flags about the integrity of union politics in Los Angeles."

In his own closing remarks, Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman conceded that Ludlow and other union officials had not behaved well, but pooh-poohed talk of broader union misconduct. He sought to focus jurors on Humphries' actions, which, according to testimony, included using union funds to pay for Ludlow's cellphone and campaign workers, as well as travel and other expenses of her personal friends.

"We need to have our political campaigns run fairly," Huntsman told the jury. "I'm not saying it's the crime of the century. But the law does need to be enforced."

The case began when auditors for SEIU noticed irregularities in Local 99's payroll. The international union took over Local 99, put trustees in charge and reported the possible violations of the law to state and federal prosecutors.

The results of several investigations, as portrayed in a 15th-floor courtroom over the last two weeks, reveal a rather easy mix of union and campaign resources.

According to testimony, three staffers from then-Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson's Office of Member Services joined Ludlow's City Council campaign in 2003 but their salaries were illegally paid by Local 99.

When union auditors questioned whether these campaign workers had done any work for the union, the campaign workers produced phony reports -- including memos on the state budget and a report on school board elections -- to make it appear that they had done things for Local 99, according to testimony.

Ludlow testified that Bill Lloyd, then an aide to Gov. Gray Davis, had signed off on the hiring of one of the Wesson aides. In his testimony, Lloyd said he had nothing to do with the aides' hiring.

Lloyd, now a deputy trustee of Local 99, testified that he had had a romantic relationship with Humphries, the defendant, that ended in 2003.

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