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Finances of charity run by SEIU official scrutinized

March 11, 2009|Paul Pringle

A Bay Area officer of the scandal-clouded Service Employees International Union has collected double salaries, one as a city transit worker and the other from a charity that receives much of its funding from the labor organization and corporate interests, records show.

In addition, the nonprofit paid more than $16,000 in rent for the officer's home in 2007, the most recent year for which the charity's tax return is available, according to his son, who is also on the charity's payroll.

James Bryant, who earned just under $68,000 as a transit station agent in 2007, received about $117,000 that year as president of the San Francisco chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, according to the tax return and the city's Municipal Transportation Agency. He was also paid or reimbursed about $10,000 as an executive board member for SEIU Local 1021, whose political committee he chairs, the union's financial statements show.

The nonprofit's tax-exempt purpose is to promote civil rights, voter education and the interests of black workers. Its biggest contributors include Pacific Gas & Electric and other corporate benefactors that have enlisted it to campaign for or against ballot initiatives dealing with energy and land development.

Nonprofit watchdogs say those relationships raise questions of whether the institute is straying from its charitable mission. The institute's corporate supporters say the nonprofit's campaign work helped preserve funding for social programs and supported the construction of affordable housing.

Bryant, who is in his 50s, is the latest of several SEIU California officers whose financial practices have come under scrutiny. He declined to be interviewed.

On Tuesday, the SEIU said one of its highest-ranking officials, Annelle Grajeda, who went on leave last summer after the union began examining payments made to her former boyfriend, has resigned her leadership positions. Grajeda was an executive vice president of the national organization and head of the union's California council and a Los Angeles local. The SEIU said its inquiry found that she committed no wrongdoing and that she had decided to become an assistant to the national union's secretary-treasurer.

Bryant's son, Joseph, who is the institute's associate director and acting executive director, said his father could not comment because the SEIU is reviewing an internal complaint made against him in connection with at least some of the nonprofit's finances.

In written responses to questions from The Times, Joseph Bryant, 26, said his father's nonprofit position is "considered annual not 'full time,' " and that he earns the second salary by working "evenings, weekends, holidays and whenever appropriate to complete his required duties."

He said the charity's rent payments for the house amount to less than half of his father's monthly mortgage bills and are justified because more than 75% of the home is devoted to the nonprofit. The charity paid $5,000 to use the house in 2006, he said. It has also rented office space at a San Francisco union hall at the same time it was paying rent on the house, he said. He said the payments for the house continued last year.

James Bryant bought the $550,000 home with his wife, Josefina Bryant, an administrative supervisor for the SEIU local, in 2006, according to the San Francisco assessor's office.

Experts in nonprofits say the salaries and house rental payments could be viewed as self-dealing.

"There is just a conflict of interest all over this thing," said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, an online review service. "It looks like something that should be reported to a government entity."

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said Joseph Bryant's job -- the son says his salary last year was $62,000 -- is similarly troubling.

"In effect, it's like putting himself on the payroll," Borochoff said of James Bryant.

A spokesman for the SEIU local, Steve Stallone, said the union is reviewing the internal complaint against James Bryant, but declined to discuss specifics. A union member brought the complaint. "If wrongdoing is found, appropriate action will be taken," Stallone said, adding that penalties could range from a reprimand to expulsion from the union.

The local represents 58,000 city, county and other public-sector workers, as well as nonprofit and nursing industry employees. The SEIU has about 2 million members in North America, more than 700,000 of them in California.

The former president of an L.A.-based SEIU local, Tyrone Freeman, has been the subject of a federal criminal investigation. He was fired after The Times reported his 160,000-member local and a related charity paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-based firms owned by his relatives.

Freeman's former chief of staff was removed as head of the SEIU's largest Michigan local for allegedly receiving improper lease payments for his Bell Gardens house.

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