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Political work by charity alleged

A union boss had staff of an L.A. nonprofit aid campaigns, some say.

October 20, 2008|Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles labor leader now the target of a corruption probe routinely ordered employees of a charity he headed to work on campaigns for political candidates -- a practice barred by law -- according to people who said they participated in such activities.

Tyrone Freeman, president of the Service Employees International Union's largest California local, later denied to the Internal Revenue Service that the charity employees were required to do campaign work, said a person close to an IRS inquiry into the matter.

Because they are subsidized by taxpayers, charities are forbidden to take part in campaigns for public office, directly or indirectly. Violations can cost charities their tax exemptions and lead to other penalties.

It is unclear what resulted from the 2006 IRS inquiry into Freeman's nonprofit, a training center for low-income workers. Citing privacy statutes, an IRS spokesperson declined to discuss any investigation of the group. The charity's tax-exempt status apparently remained unchanged.

Six people who worked for either the union or the charity told The Times that Freeman, and others at the labor organization acting on his behalf, ordered the nonprofit's staffers to join partisan get-out-the-vote drives and other campaign efforts during and after their regular hours. The former employees spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation and legal jeopardy.

"We constantly told Tyrone that it was inappropriate, but he constantly had us out in the field," said one former charity worker. "Lists were always provided to him. If you weren't there, you got ratted out."

Freeman could not be reached for comment, and attempts to interview his attorney were unsuccessful. An SEIU spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said the union knew nothing about any campaign work by the charity workers or an IRS examination.

"They did not report it to us, as far as we can tell," Michelle Ringuette said of Freeman's local.

A staffer made an anonymous tip to the IRS in late 2004 or early 2005, and the agency eventually sent a letter to the charity raising questions about the alleged political activities, two people familiar with the events said.

An IRS examiner subsequently interviewed Freeman at the union's Beverly Boulevard headquarters, and he denied that the work was performed, according to the source with knowledge of the inquiry. By that time, Freeman had stopped using the charity staffers on campaigns, former employees say.

The March 2006 letter specified the 2004 race by future Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat; John Kerry's presidential run that year; and former Gov. Gray Davis' 2003 bid to defeat a recall, one source said. There was no indication that they or the other politicians who benefited from the work knew the employees were from a nonprofit, several sources say. Bass became speaker this year.

Calls to her and Davis for comment were not returned.

"We campaigned very heavily for Karen Bass, very heavily," said a former charity staffer. "You didn't have a choice."

The former workers say that employees were required to distribute fliers, walk precincts and staff phone banks for individual candidates and the Democratic ticket during the days leading up to primary and general elections.

"Generally, it was door-to-door," said a former union employee. "Every single person was required to work."

Freeman and his local, the United Long-Term Care Workers, are the subjects of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Labor Department, the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office, people with knowledge of the probe say.

The investigation grew out of Times reports in August that the charity and Freeman's local had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-based companies owned by his wife and mother-in-law. The SEIU has removed Freeman from the payroll pending an internal review of his actions.

The former workers say Freeman called meetings at which he directed all employees to show up for election duty at union or campaign offices. "Tyrone said there would be consequences for anybody who didn't sign in," said one former charity employee.

A former union staffer said of the nonprofit workers: "It was mandatory that they attend all the meetings. They would complain about it."

Freeman founded the Homecare Workers Training Center in 2000. It is located at the union's offices near downtown, where it provides programming services and space for vocational classes and English language courses.

The charity came under scrutiny after The Times reported that it has paid a home-based day care service owned by Freeman's mother-in-law nearly $100,000 annually for the last several years.

The union also has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on resort golf tournaments, expensive restaurants, a Beverly Hills cigar club and a Hollywood talent agency. And the SEIU has accused Freeman of billing the union for $8,100 in costs incurred during his Hawaiian wedding.

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