There may be few things in organized labor these days as permanent as the temporary suspension of a union officer suspected of massive corruption – at least when the parent union itself is under the watchful eye of authorities. On November 26, Service Employees International Union President Andrew Stern announced he was imposing a lifetime ban on Tyrone Freeman, until recently the president of the largest SEIU local in California. Additionally, Stern ordered Freeman to repay the local more than $1.1 million he allegedly misappropriated over the last few years. Thus ends a promising union career, not to mention a close working relationship with SEIU top brass.
Union Corruption Update in September noted on two separate occasions that Freeman had been accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from his 160,000-member Los Angeles-based union, the United Long-Term Care Workers, also known as SEIU Local 6434, plus a 30,000-member caregiver workers affiliate. The Service Employees, headquartered in Washington, D.C., had assumed a trusteeship over the local in August in response to detailed stories in the Los Angeles Times accusing Freeman of making unauthorized withdrawals from the local for his own benefit and that of family members and friends. The parent union appointed John Ronches to serve as trustee, overseeing all aspects of local operations. Former California Attorney General John Van de Kamp assisted Ronches in his investigation and his filing of charges against Freeman. A hearing officer, former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin, eventually concluded in a report that Freeman had engaged in a pattern of theft and cover-ups, in violation of the SEIU constitution and local by-laws.
Freeman lived the good life and wanted to share it with those close to him. The SEIU in September filed seven charges against him for diverting union funds toward payments to firms run by his wife, mother-in-law and a friend, a nonprofit fund founded by Freeman, expenses related to his 2006 wedding, membership in a cigar club, and other unauthorized purposes. He also violated procedural and democratic safeguards. “Today’s decision sends a clear message across our nation,” said President Stern. “Our members do some of the toughest jobs anywhere, and we will not tolerate any actions violating their trust or putting their interests at risk.” This isn’t the end of the story. The House Education and Labor Committee recently opened its own inquiry.
Fortunately for Freeman, the news isn’t all bad. This November, Mark Ridley-Thomas defeated former Los Angeles Police Chief (and current Los Angeles City Councilman) Bernard Parks by a 61-39 percent margin in a runoff election for a vacant seat on the Los Angeles County Board. Ridley-Thomas, a California state senator, is a strong ally of Southern California labor leaders. His campaign received a whopping $8.5 million from a union-led independent expenditure committee called the Alliance for a Stronger Community. By late August, Tyrone Freeman’s Local 6434 already had raised nearly $500,000 for this alliance – a figure that no doubt would have climbed higher had Freeman’s career not been short-circuited. Ridley-Thomas openly touts his union ties. Unions, especially those with county service contracts, view him as their champion. If Freeman needs help covering his legal bills or restitution costs, he knows where to turn. (SEIU, 11/26/08; Los Angeles Times, 11/6/08, 11/27/08; other sources).