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Election practice at L.A. union contested

October 21, 2008|Paul Pringle | Pringle is a Times staff writer.

The U.S. Labor Department has asked a federal court to overturn the election of all officers at a troubled Los Angeles union local, alleging that the organization made it too difficult for challengers to qualify for the ballot.

In a civil complaint against the Service Employees International Union's largest California chapter, the department contends that the March election of local President Tyrone Freeman and his slate of officers violated labor laws. Freeman is the target of a separate criminal investigation into the local's spending practices.

The election complaint notes that the local required candidates to collect more than 4,800 nomination signatures in three weeks from members who worked mainly as caregivers in private homes.

Only Freeman and his allies qualified for the United Long-Term Care Workers ballot. The complaint accuses the local of "failing to provide a reasonable opportunity for the nomination of candidates." It seeks a new election under the department's supervision.

Freeman has denied any wrongdoing. The union's national headquarters has removed him from the payroll and placed the local into trusteeship because of the spending scandal. All of the local's roughly 50 board members and other officers have lost their posts because of the trusteeship.

In response to the complaint, union trustee John Ronches, who was appointed by the SEIU, said in a statement that it would "work closely" with the Labor Department to ensure that the election of officers "sets the highest standards of fairness and democratic representation."

Meanwhile, five of the former board members have filed suit against the union, asking that the trusteeship be revoked. They say that the SEIU illegally denied them representation at an internal hearing, and that they and the other board members should be restored to their positions. Freeman is not part of that suit.

"The board is saying, regardless of what Freeman did, we want our union back," said Gary Goodstein, an attorney for the panel members.

In a statement, SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said the board's suit is "frivolous," and the union is "confident the trusteeship will be upheld."

If the Labor Department prevails in its complaint, the suit brought by the ex-board members could become moot. Both actions were filed Friday in Los Angeles federal court.

The union has been under fire since August, when The Times reported that the local and a related charity paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-base businesses owned by Freeman's wife and mother-in-law.

The local also spent large sums on golf resorts, expensive restaurants and a Beverly Hills cigar club.

On Monday, The Times reported that Freeman ordered employees of the charity to work on campaigns for public office -- despite laws barring such practices -- according to people who said they took part in the activities.

Freeman later denied to the Internal Revenue Service that he required the charity staffers to work on the campaigns, said a person close to a 2006 IRS inquiry into the matter.

Attempts to reach Freeman about the campaign allegation have been unsuccessful. The IRS has declined to comment.

An SEIU executive vice president, Annelle Grajeda, has gone on leave because of allegations that her ex-boyfriend received improper union payments. Grajeda also is president of the SEIU's California council and another Los Angeles-based local.

Last week, the SEIU ousted the president of its biggest Michigan chapter, Rickman Jackson, a former chief of staff to Freeman. The Times reported that Jackson's Bell Gardens residence was used as the address of a housing corporation associated with Freeman's local. The SEIU later said that the corporation improperly paid to lease the house; the union has required Jackson to return $33,500 in payments.

The SEIU also has fired four of Freeman's top managers and assistants. Two other employees either were fired or resigned after being accused of threatening colleagues suspected of speaking to The Times, according to an SEIU official.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

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