While the January 28 conviction for embezzlement of Tyrone Freeman, the former president of the Service Employees International Union's (SEIU) largest local in California (and second largest in the nation), closes a chapter in one of the worst recent cases of union corruption, it should open a new round of questions regarding Freeman's relationship with the SEIU national headquarters, and specifically, the union's notorious former head, Andrew Stern.
Freeman was designated by SEIU's national leadership to lead a forced consolidation of California locals -- including some that resisted the consolidation, leading one Oakland-based local to break away from SEIU altogether, alleging heavy-handed tactics by SEIU operatives. So, now is a good time to review the road that led to Freeman's conviction.
On August 9, 2008, The Los Angeles Times broke the scandal story, reporting a series of dubious expenses totaling around $300,000, including: payments to a company owned by Freeman's wife; a golf tournament at a Four Seasons resort, which brought in at least $123,000 less than what the union spent on the tournament; nearly $10,000 at at the Grand Havana Room, a cigar Beverly Hills cigar club, recorded as "lodging" in the union's financial report (a Grand Havana spokeswoman told the Times the club does not provide hotel accommodations).
At the time, Freeman's local was also under investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor for alleged election irregularities, which some union dissidents claimed SEIU's national leadership knew about. The Times' Paul Pringle reported on August 16, 2008:
A source close to the union said [SEIU spokesman Steve] Trossman was informed six years ago of allegations involving Freeman's finances and personal relationships. It is unclear whether a review was undertaken at that time; Trossman said that the SEIU might have performed an audit of the local because of the allegations, but that he couldn't be sure.
The source, who asked not to be identified because he feared retribution, said Trossman helped develop a strategy in 2002 to keep the allegations from embarrassing the SEIU at a time of epic membership growth.
Trossman's efforts succeeded, the source said. Freeman's local continued to expand as part of SEIU President Andy Stern's much-celebrated campaign to organize entire industries state by state. The local and an affiliate ended up representing about 190,000 workers, most of them in the field of home healthcare.
Last week, Trossman said, "I don't remember exactly what happened" in 2002.
Trossman said that he did remember a Times reporter calling him then about the allegations and that he believes he referred the inquiry to the local. Trossman said he did not talk to Freeman about the accusations, and does not recall whether Stern was informed.
The important question that the Labor Department needs to ask now is: What did Stern and the rest of the SEIU leadership know and when did they know it? And there is another question worth pondering: Will President Obama appoint a new Secretary of Labor willing to pursue cases like this?