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County board race heats up

Labor leader's problems spill over into the fierce campaign for L.A. County supervisor.

August 22, 2008|Garrett Therolf and David Zahniser | Times Staff Writers

Controversy surrounding a powerful Los Angeles labor leader threatened Thursday to alter the landscape beneath the county's hottest political race, which has been fueled by record amounts of union spending.

Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors candidate Bernard C. Parks, who trailed in the June primary, challenged opponent Mark Ridley-Thomas to return more than $4.5 million raised on his behalf by a labor alliance that included beleaguered union leader Tyrone Freeman.

Parks, a Los Angeles city councilman, also noted that county officials have accused Freeman's local of raising more than $5 million in illegitimate union dues from low-wage home healthcare workers, a charge that union attorneys have flatly denied.

"Mr. Ridley-Thomas, how do you feel about benefiting from the money of people who are hovering just above the poverty line?" Parks said. "Give the money back to the people who need it most."

Steve Barkan, a political consultant for Ridley-Thomas, called Parks' request "silly" and countered that Parks should return donations that he received from contractors doing business with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, where he is a board member.

"There's an investigation pending into the allegations against Mr. Freeman," said Barkan, who said Parks received a $500 donation from Freeman's union during his 2007 reelection campaign for City Council. "Whether the union wants to give the money back is clearly up to the union."

Two weeks ago, The Times reported that the union had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to firms owned by Freeman's wife and his mother-in-law. Earlier this week, the labor leader took a leave of absence until the union's national office completes an internal investigation.

Most of the more than $4.5 million in labor money raised to support Ridley-Thomas, who is a state senator, came from other union locals that joined with Freeman's local to create an independent expenditure committee. As long as such a group does not coordinate with the candidate it supports, it can sidestep campaign finance laws that limit contributions to $1,000 a person. Because no union money was given directly to Ridley-Thomas, he has nothing to give back -- even if he wanted to do so.

However, Freeman's local has been one of Ridley-Thomas' most ardent supporters and gave the independent committee at least $468,000 to spend in the hotly contested primary campaign for supervisor.

The union dues allegation mentioned by Parks stems from complaints made by the Public Assistance Services Council, a county agency that employs 135,000 home healthcare workers. The workers' contract is negotiated by Freeman's union, but those employees who choose not to join the union have been allowed to pay a reduced rate of monthly union dues. However, the union recently raised their dues to the same rate as members'. The difference is what county officials consider excessive and in violation of the union's collective bargaining agreement, said the council's attorney, Richard Fisher.

"Is it any coincidence," Parks asked at his press conference, "that the charges began to be implemented in October, the same month Ridley-Thomas announced his candidacy for county supervisor?"

Since Ridley-Thomas declared for office, Freeman's SEIU Local 6434 spent at least $35,000 on radio advertising, putting spots on KJLH-FM, which bills itself as the city's No. 1 black-owned radio station.

The union also bought at least $22,000 worth of print advertising in the Los Angeles Sentinel, a newspaper with a heavily African American readership. Less than two weeks before the June primary, Freeman's union paid for five full-page ads promoting Ridley-Thomas' candidacy in the Sentinel.

The same edition also featured a sixth, full-page ad in color accusing Parks of seeking to roll back rent control; that ad was paid for by the unions' independent committee, the Alliance for a Stronger Community.

Even before the supervisorial campaign had gotten underway, Freeman used his union's money to improve Ridley-Thomas' name recognition in the black media. One full-page advertisement that ran in the Sentinel in January -- not listed as a campaign expense but paid for by SEIU Local 6434 -- served as a "salute" to Ridley-Thomas and his "unyielding commitment to strengthening our community."

"Mark has, for more than a decade, been one of long-term care workers' greatest allies," said Freeman, who appears with a broad smile in the advertisement, just below three photos of Ridley-Thomas.

Scott Mann, a spokesman for SEIU Local 6434, dismissed Parks' request to return any of the money to union workers. "Mr. Parks' call certainly sounds like another effort to silence the voice of working people," he said.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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