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Cement masons union leader subject of U.S. investigation

Labor Dept. examines claims that Scott Brain, head of the cement masons union local, let firms skip payments to workers' health and pension funds.

November 08, 2013|By Paul Pringle
  • The skilled labor of the Local 600 is visible in the columns and courtyards of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
The skilled labor of the Local 600 is visible in the columns and courtyards… (Barbara Davidson, Los Angeles…)

A union leader whose members helped construct Disney Hall, Staples Center and other signature Southern California buildings is under investigation over allegations that he let employers skip payments to workers' health and pension funds, spent dues money on an extramarital affair and retaliated against whistle-blowers.

Scott Brain represents about 1,650 workers as head of Cement Masons Union Local 600, based in Bell Gardens. The union is a force in local and state politics as a regular donor to election campaigns.

Its collective bargaining agreements require construction companies to contribute money to trusts that fund workers' medical care, retirement plans and other benefits.

The union trusts accused some employers of failing to make millions of dollars in such payments, court records and trust documents show.

Brain supported efforts to remove an audit director for the trusts who had complained about the missing payments, according to trust records that have been turned over to federal investigators.

The director was placed on leave after she began cooperating with the investigation of Brain by the U.S. Department of Labor. She was subsequently discharged and has filed a wrongful termination suit.

Among the allegations under investigation is that Brain, business manager of Local 600, spent union funds on an affair with Melissa Cook, an attorney retained by the trusts.

Brain signed Cook's checks, and her firm's fees for representing the trusts increased significantly on his watch, billing records show.

Cook resigned from the trusts after a federal agent called her in May and asked if she was having an affair with Brain, said people familiar with the events.

In a brief phone interview, Brain said of the allegations: "Wow, I probably shouldn't comment. There's nothing there."

Local 600's attorney, Jeffrey Cutler, said Brain had no motive to allow contractors to withhold benefit payments. He said federal investigators "have never asked to interview Mr. Brain."

Cook, who runs a San Diego law firm, said the fees the trusts paid her firm were proper. She said she would not discuss "any personal matter" involving Brain.

Members of Local 600 have left their stamp on fire stations, schools and civic buildings from Los Angeles to the Central Coast. Their skilled labor is visible in the columns and courtyards of such landmarks as the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

The recession hit the union hard, and much of the recovery has passed the workers by. Masons who once worked enough hours to earn $80,000 a year make as little as $45,000 today.

Collecting every penny for their benefit trusts is crucial, because the contributions stop whenever the workers are between jobs.

A Labor Department investigator has served subpoenas on the union and the trusts, obtaining records on 10 contractors that employed Local 600 members and other documents.

People questioned by federal agents said they focused on two companies that, the trusts alleged in court records, failed to make about $4 million in payments: B&M Contractors Inc. of Simi Valley and the now-defunct A&G Custom Concrete and Repair of Riverside.

The absence of the payments was confirmed through audits by the trusts in 2008, the court records show.

Cheryle Ann Robbins, then audit and collections director for the trusts, addressed the matter with the trust boards, according to minutes of the panels' closed-door meetings, which the Labor Department has subpoenaed.

The minutes for one meeting show that Robbins and a trustee voiced suspicions that Brain allowed A&G to withhold the payments, although a company representative denied that to board members.

Robbins told The Times that Brain confronted her in the office parking lot after the meeting and warned her not to press the issue.

"He said I could lose my job," she said.

Principals in B&M and A&G said union representatives led them to believe that their contracts with Local 600 required them to make contributions only for some workers in limited circumstances.

"Nobody ever told us to make any payments," said Dave Moore, a partner in B&M.

The wrangling over the contributions led to several lawsuits. The two firms eventually agreed to pay a combined $750,000, about 19% of what the trusts alleged they owed, according to the meeting minutes and other records.

Cook represented the trusts in the B&M dispute. Citing the 2008 audit, Cook said in court papers that the company owed the trusts $2.9 million. In an interview, however, she said the audit had exaggerated the amount owed and that the $400,000 B&M paid in the settlement was closer to the actual figure.

Robbins disputed that, saying the $2.9 million was determined by examining the company's payroll records.

After the settlements, Robbins said, Brain intervened on behalf of a contractor that owed the trusts more than $30,000. According to the meeting minutes, Brain said the contractor owed less than that, and the amount was reduced to about $5,200.

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