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U.S. probes union election

SEIU local allegedly made it hard for others to compete against leader's slate, which won by default.

August 17, 2008|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

The election of a Los Angeles union leader under fire for his labor group's spending practices is the subject of a government review that could force a new vote because of complaints that the contest was unfair to challengers.

The U.S. Labor Department is investigating allegations that Tyrone Freeman's union local made it nearly impossible for candidates not on his slate to qualify for the ballot, according to people familiar with the probe.

Freeman's local, a chapter of the giant Service Employees International Union, has denied that the election rules were tilted against challengers. Freeman and his slate won by default because no challenger gathered enough signatures to make the ballot.

The dispute comes as the SEIU has begun rooting through Freeman's books because of a Times report on the local's finances, SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman said Friday.

Freeman's local is called the United Long-Term Care Workers. Trossman said he hoped to have a preliminary report soon.

A source close to the union said Trossman was informed six years ago of allegations involving Freeman's finances and personal relationships. It is unclear whether a review was undertaken at that time; Trossman said that the SEIU might have performed an audit of the local because of the allegations, but that he couldn't be sure.

The source, who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution, said Trossman helped develop a strategy in 2002 to keep the allegations from embarrassing the SEIU at a time of epic membership growth.

Trossman's efforts succeeded, the source said. Freeman's local continued to expand as part of SEIU President Andy Stern's much-celebrated campaign to organize entire industries state by state. The local and an affiliate ended up representing about 190,000 workers, most of them in the field of home healthcare.

Last week, Trossman said, "I don't remember exactly what happened" in 2002.

Trossman said that he did remember a Times reporter calling him then about the allegations and that he believes he referred the inquiry to the local. Trossman said he did not talk to Freeman about the accusations, and does not recall whether Stern was informed.

The source, who told of discussing the allegations with Trossman, said they included complaints that Freeman fathered a child with a staffer, Pilar Planells, who later became his wife.

"Many people complained" that Planells was placed in a key administrative position after she started a relationship with Freeman, the source said. The source also said there were accusations that Freeman arbitrarily increased worker fees to pay the local's bills, and that he spent too much money on perks such as cars for himself and favored lieutenants.

In an e-mail, Trossman said the union was "reviewing records and conducting interviews" at the local but offered no details.

A Freeman spokesman said in an e-mail that all the complaints about his spending practices and Pilar Planells were false.

Earlier this month, The Times reported that the local and a related charity had paid at least $405,700 since 2006 -- not counting any outlays this year -- to firms that Freeman's wife and mother-in-law operate at their homes. The union also spent nearly $300,000 last year on a Four Seasons golf tournament, restaurants such as a Morton's steakhouse, a Beverly Hills cigar lounge and William Morris Agency, the Hollywood talent house.

Freeman did not file any disclosure forms revealing the 2006 and 2007 payments to his wife's video company, as required by federal law, until after The Times began inquiring about them last month, U.S. Labor Department officials say.

In response to the July inquiries, Trossman had issued a statement on behalf of Stern that said the union had received no allegations about Freeman's local. Freeman denied any wrongdoing.

The source, who said he was party to internal conversations about Freeman in 2002, told The Times last week: "The international knew that there were allegations of impropriety many years ago. This is not news to them."

Nelson Lichtenstein, director of UC Santa Barbara's Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, said it appears that SEIU leaders, when confronted with qualms about Freeman, opted for a path taken by other union executives in similar straits.

"They say, 'Let's hope this thing goes away, ' " he said. " 'When it becomes egg on your face, then you do something about it.' "

Lichtenstein said the union clearly had an "investment" in Freeman, a Stern protege who has been a high-profile loyalist in the SEIU push to consolidate regional locals into statewide chapters. That effort is being resisted by a handful of dissidents, notably the president of a 150,000-worker Oakland affiliate.

Stern wants to move 65,000 workers from that local to Freeman's, a proposal that has triggered a nasty internecine fight.

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