In Australia, investigations of labor corruption go all out. Recent leaders of that country’s Health Services Union no doubt wish that wasn’t the case. This March, former HSU National President Michael Williamson was sentenced in Sydney District Court to up to seven-and-a-half years in prison for fleecing his union of about AUD$1 million, though the true total of his thefts may have run well into the millions. He had pleaded guilty last October. A union commission is continuing its search for answers in this scandal. Recently-released phone recordings have confirmed Williamson directed his HSU East Branch successor to block a police probe. And the union has sued its former national secretary, Kathy Jackson, for diverting $660,000 toward personal expenses. Jackson denies all wrongdoing, saying the charges are the work of opponents bent on punishing her prior whistle-blowing.
Union Corruption Update twice has covered this case, in September 2012 and again in April 2013. Michael Williamson, now 61, a resident of the Sydney area, was a top-ranking person in the overlapping worlds of Australian labor and politics. He had served since 1995 as general secretary of the Health Services Union, which represents more than 60,000 health care employees, and was the HSU’s inaugural national president from 2003 until his suspension in October 2011 and subsequent resignation in August 2012. He also was a board member of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, which is that nation’s equivalent of our AFL-CIO. And he was national president of the Australian Labor Party during 2009-10 on top of his regular role as senior vice president of the party’s New South Wales branch. Unfortunately, a disturbing body of evidence revealed that he also was corrupt.
The Melbourne-based Health Services Union, founded in 1991 through a merger of two predecessor unions, several years ago discovered it had a major financial shortfall. Several dissenting members hired barrister Ian Temby and accountant Dennis Robertson to conduct a probe. Portions of the eight-month inquiry were leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald and published in September 2011. During Michael Williamson’s tenure as head of HSU and a branch affiliate, HSU-East, more than $20 million in payments had been shifted from the union to certain employees, vendors and other persons without proper documentation and/or justification. About $4.7 million alone went to an information technology company, United Edge, of which Williamson was part-owner. Another $4.5 million had been shifted to a separate firm, Access Focus, whose owner, Alf Downing, was described in the Temby-Robertson report as the union’s “Mr. Fix It.” And roughly another $5 million had gone to enterprises operated by Williamson and his wife. In addition, five of the union’s highest-paid employees were immediate or extended family members of Williamson.
It looked like self-dealing on a massive scale. And Williamson eventually would pay the price. Based on the newspaper revelations, New South Wales police raided the Health Services Union’s Sydney office in May 2012, seizing documents and computers. He would be charged in October of that year with various counts of embezzlement, fraud and obstruction, and then in April 2013, with embezzling another $600,000 in HSU funds. Williamson pleaded guilty in October 2013 to four major charges; in return, prosecutors dropped all other charges against him and agreed not to charge his wife or other family members with any offenses. He was sentenced this past March to five to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Other Health Services Union officials likewise have been embroiled in scandal. In 2012, an investigation by Fair Work Australia, the rough equivalent of our own National Labor Relations Board (formally, Fair Work Australia is not a government agency), had concluded that former HSU National Secretary Craig Thomson, who left the union for a political career in 2007, had diverted more than $500,000 toward personal expenses, about half of which went to pay for his parliamentary campaign. Thomson would be elected, but even as an MP, he too would get burned. He was convicted this March for fraud and was given a three-month sentence which he now is appealing. His replacement, Kathy Jackson, also had been accused in the Temby-Robertson report of diverting and concealing more than $100,000 in union funds to companies that listed her and her former husband as directors, plus additional funds to the children of her partner, Michael Lawler, who happens to be vice president of Fair Work Australia.
Kathy Jackson, in fact, had blown the whistle on Thomson back in 2009. This, she states, is the reason why the current union leadership, partial to Thomson, is suing her for $1.36 million, alleging that she spent $660,000 in HSU funds on personal expenses. Jackson, who according to her lawyer recently had attempted suicide, has been the target of death threats by Thomson loyalists. Ousted from her post in 2012, Ms. Jackson also accuses Thomson predecessor and current Labor Party Leader Bill Shorten of leading a campaign against her for helping to expose Thomson and his allies, which included Williamson. “They were part of a corrupt little gang that were trying to put this union into administration for their own political ends, not because they were concerned for members of the Health Services Union,” she told reporters. “It was about protecting their power base.” Even with Michael Williamson behind bars, this case appears far from concluded.