Despite all evidence to the contrary, Tyrone Freeman (see photo) was convinced he was innocent. It proved less a conviction than a delusion. This past Monday, January 28, a Los Angeles federal jury convicted the once-powerful Southern California Service Employees International Union (SEIU) leader on 14 criminal charges, including embezzlement, mail fraud and tax fraud. It was an ignominious downfall for a man whom many believed one day would succeed his ally and mentor, then-SEIU President Andrew Stern. “This was a case about abuse and betrayal,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr. “Freeman abused his position as a leader of the SEIU, and he betrayed the hardworking people whose interests he was supposed to represent.” In one sense, Freeman got off easy: While convicted of thefts in the tens of thousands of dollars, the actual total almost surely was far higher.
Union Corruption Update has covered this case several times, most recently early last August. Tyrone Freeman, who during 2006-08 headed the 180,000-member SEIU Local 6434, also known as United Long-Term Care Workers, had been indicted by a federal grand jury on July 31 on 15 criminal charges: seven counts of embezzlement of union assets; four counts of mail fraud; three counts of filing a false tax return; and one count of providing false information to a bank in order to obtain a loan. The indictments were overdue. Back in the summer of 2008 a series of investigative reports by the Los Angeles Times, using U.S. Labor Department data, pointed to Freeman as the maypole of corruption at the local benefiting family, friends and political allies. Hundreds of thousands, if not over a million dollars either were unaccounted for or had gone for purposes unrelated to union business. Freeman allegedly had diverted funds from the coffers of his union and a joint SEIU-AFSCME nonprofit venture, California Union Homecare Workers for personal uses; used his union and another nonprofit group, Alliance for a Stronger Community, to shake down union members for political donations in cash and free labor; stole funds from another nonprofit, Long-Term Care Housing Corporation; and failed to report tens of thousands of dollars of taxable income.
SEIU International Union President Andrew Stern, reviewing the evidence, removed Freeman from office shortly thereafter in September 2008 and then, two months later, imposed a lifetime ban on his union activity. He also put Local 6434 under trusteeship. It would not be until last summer that a grand jury would hand down indictments. Freeman, living in the Pittsburgh area, contested the charges. His lawyers remarked: “When the truth comes out at trial, it will abundantly clear that he acted appropriately at all times,” adding that SEIU top brass in Washington has pushed for prosecution and needed a scapegoat. But the situation didn’t look promising. For one thing, the indictments were the result of a nearly four-year joint investigation by the U.S. Labor Department, the FBI and the IRS. For another, Freeman’s wife, Pilar Planells, already had pleaded guilty in June 2012 to income tax evasion related to more than $540,000 in “consulting” work she had done for Local 6434.
Taking his chances with a jury, Freeman came up on the losing side. The 10-day trial provided clear evidence of a consistent pattern of theft and fraud. Freeman, concluded the jury, transferred local and related nonprofit funds to personal accounts, charged personal items on a union credit card and knowingly failed to report about $63,000 in personal income for tax years 2006 and 2007. After three days of deliberation, the jury found Freeman guilty on 14 counts. Freeman faces decades of prison time at his April 22 sentencing. Not too many dues-paying union members, who typically make only a couple dollars above minimum wage, are likely to lament such an outcome.