A theft in the four figures might not seem worth a year-long investigation. But UNITE HERE is a union unlikely to leave things to chance – especially given its recent history of federal supervision. On May 1, the union’s ethics board took disciplinary action against two top officials of Local 355, representing 2,700 hotel, restaurant and catering workers in the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area. Jorge Santiesteban and Andre J. Balash, respectively, the local’s president and secretary-treasurer, were forced out of their positions after a UNITE HERE internal probe concluded the pair had diverted union funds toward personal expenses, among other violations. The New York City-based international union also recommended placing the local under trusteeship.
The Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees (HERE) merged with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) in 2004. It was a mating nearly a decade in the making. In 1995, a federal judge had placed the mobbed-up HERE under the supervision of a special monitor. Three years later, when President Edward Hanley was forced to step down, the union signed a consent decree lifting court supervision in favor of a Public Review Board authorized to investigate corruption and enforce a strict ethics code, an arrangement similar to the one governing the Teamsters since 1989. The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, ended its direct supervision of HERE in 2000.
Santiesteban and Balash, charged the review board, each misused between $3,000 and $4,000 in union funds for meals and hotel stays. Additionally, Balash knowingly associated with Rocco J. Panaro, who had been barred from contact with union officials as part of a 1992 consent decree that settled a racketeering charge against a HERE local in New York. In the wake of the probe, Santiesteban resigned from his post, while Balash agreed to a two-year ban on holding union office. UNITE HERE named William Granfield, president of New York City’s powerful Local 100, as trustee of Local 355 for an indefinite period. The union did not indicate whether there is an active criminal investigation. (South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/2/07).