John Ulrich may have seen the arrangement as a business deal, but federal prosecutors see it as a crime. On February 21, Ulrich, formerly vice president of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 812, was indicted in Manhattan federal court with soliciting and receiving tens of thousands of dollars in bribes from an unnamed administrator for the health plan of the Great Neck (Long Island), N.Y.-based union in return for retaining that company as a client. Ulrich, who was a plan trustee as well as a union officer, had been arrested earlier that day. He pleaded not guilty, and was released on $100,000 bond. The indictment follows a joint probe by the FBI and the Labor Department’s Office of Labor-Management Standards, Office of Inspector General and Employee Benefits Security Administration.
Teamsters Local 812 represents about 3,000 soft drink and brewery workers in the New York City metropolitan area. John Ulrich, now 48, a resident of Newburgh, N.Y., saw a money-making opportunity on the side. According to prosecutors, he began soliciting bribes in 2013, a time when he was facing “financial difficulties.” Ulrich allegedly approached the administrator of the third-party company that processed member health benefits, and demanded quarterly payments of $5,000 in exchange for influencing the plan board of trustees to continue using that company rather than switch to another firm. It was a shakedown by any other name. He then demanded even larger payments starting in 2014, telling the administrator that a fellow trustee needed extra money. According to the feds, however, all of the money went into Ulrich’s pockets. He then asked for even larger payments on or around September 19, 2015.
Trustees of the Local 812 health plan, meanwhile, were growing suspicious. More than two years after issuing a request for proposals for a new administrator, and receiving multiple bids in response, the union continued to hire the existing firm. Things came to head in February 2016 during a special board meeting convened by plan trustees. The trustees reviewed accusations that Ulrich had prevented competitive bidding from taking place, and then voted to remove him as union vice president and fellow trustee. The union then notified federal authorities and requested a full-scale investigation. A four-count indictment would come down three years later this February 21 for solicitation and receipt of bribe payments, honest services fraud, and conspiracy to commit these acts.
John Ulrich is convinced he’s gotten a raw deal. His Orange County, N.Y.-based attorney, Joseph Ranni, puts it this way: “He (Ulrich) is a whistleblower who is being framed by the union for having exposed the corruption of senior officers preceding any claim of purported ‘bribes.’ Ulrich never took any bribes from anybody.” For good measure, Ranni has filed state civil suits on behalf of his client against Teamsters Local 812, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters; assorted Teamsters officers, past and present; the local health plan administrator; and the Orange County executive. Federal authorities, however, believe that they have a solid case. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman explained: “John Ulrich abused his position as the vice president of the labor union and trustee for its health plan by selling his influence to the union’s health care administrator. As part of this alleged scheme, Ulrich betrayed the trust of the union members who elected him in order to line his pockets with bribe money.” And FBI Assistant Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said, “In his official role, he (Ulrich) was charged with protecting the interests of his fellow union employees, but as we allege today, this trustee couldn’t be trusted.”