[R-G] L.A. SEIU leader used charity employees for politics, workers say
Steven L. Robinson
srobin21 at comcast.net
Mon Oct 20 23:55:12 MDT 2008
L.A. labor leader used charity's employees for politics, workers say
Tyrone Freeman, head of SEIU's largest California union local, ordered
employees of a charity he ran to campaign for candidates, some ex-workers
By Paul Pringle, Staff Writer
The Los Angeles Times
October 20, 2008
A Los Angeles labor leader now the target of a corruption probe routinely
ordered employees of a charity he headed to work on campaigns for political
candidates -- a practice barred by law -- according to people who said they
participated in such activities.
Tyrone Freeman, president of the Service Employees International Union's
largest California local, later denied to the Internal Revenue Service that
the charity employees were required to do campaign work, said a person close
to an IRS inquiry into the matter.
Because they are subsidized by taxpayers, charities are forbidden to take
part in campaigns for public office, directly or indirectly. Violations can
cost charities their tax exemptions and lead to other penalties.
It is unclear what resulted from the 2006 IRS inquiry into Freeman's
nonprofit, a training center for low-income workers. Citing privacy
statutes, an IRS spokesperson declined to discuss any investigation of the
group. The charity's tax-exempt status apparently remained unchanged.
Six people who worked for either the union or the charity told The Times
that Freeman, and others at the labor organization acting on his behalf,
ordered the nonprofit's staffers to join partisan get-out-the-vote drives
and other campaign efforts during and after their regular hours. The former
employees spoke on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation
and legal jeopardy.
"We constantly told Tyrone that it was inappropriate, but he constantly had
us out in the field," said one former charity worker. "Lists were always
provided to him. If you weren't there, you got ratted out."
Freeman could not be reached for comment, and attempts to interview his
attorney were unsuccessful. An SEIU spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said
the union knew nothing about any campaign work by the charity workers or an
"They did not report it to us, as far as we can tell," Michelle Ringuette
said of Freeman's local.
A staffer made an anonymous tip to the IRS in late 2004 or early 2005, and
the agency eventually sent a letter to the charity raising questions about
the alleged political activities, two people familiar with the events said.
An IRS examiner subsequently interviewed Freeman at the union's Beverly
Boulevard headquarters, and he denied that the work was performed, according
to the source with knowledge of the inquiry. By that time, Freeman had
stopped using the charity staffers on campaigns, former employees say.
The March 2006 letter specified the 2004 race by future Assembly Speaker
Karen Bass, a Los Angeles Democrat; John Kerry's presidential run that year;
and former Gov. Gray Davis' 2003 bid to defeat a recall, one source said.
There was no indication that they or the other politicians who benefited
from the work knew the employees were from a nonprofit, several sources say.
Bass became speaker this year.
Calls to her and Davis for comment were not returned.
"We campaigned very heavily for Karen Bass, very heavily," said a former
charity staffer. "You didn't have a choice."
The former workers say that employees were required to distribute fliers,
walk precincts and staff phone banks for individual candidates and the
Democratic ticket during the days leading up to primary and general
"Generally, it was door-to-door," said a former union employee. "Every
single person was required to work."
Freeman and his local, the United Long-Term Care Workers, are the subjects
of a criminal investigation by the U.S. Labor Department, the FBI and the
U.S. attorney's office, people with knowledge of the probe say.
The investigation grew out of Times reports in August that the charity and
Freeman's local had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-based
companies owned by his wife and mother-in-law. The SEIU has removed Freeman
from the payroll pending an internal review of his actions.
The former workers say Freeman called meetings at which he directed all
employees to show up for election duty at union or campaign offices. "Tyrone
said there would be consequences for anybody who didn't sign in," said one
former charity employee.
A former union staffer said of the nonprofit workers: "It was mandatory that
they attend all the meetings. They would complain about it."
Freeman founded the Homecare Workers Training Center in 2000. It is located
at the union's offices near downtown, where it provides programming services
and space for vocational classes and English language courses.
The charity came under scrutiny after The Times reported that it has paid a
home-based day care service owned by Freeman's mother-in-law nearly $100,000
annually for the last several years.
The union also has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on resort golf
tournaments, expensive restaurants, a Beverly Hills cigar club and a
Hollywood talent agency. And the SEIU has accused Freeman of billing the
union for $8,100 in costs incurred during his Hawaiian wedding.
Most of the local's 160,000 members earn about $9 an hour caring for the
elderly and infirm in their homes. Freeman also heads an affiliated local,
California United Homecare Workers, which has about 40,000 members.
The spending scandal has spread to other SEIU chapters as well as the
union's national headquarters. An SEIU executive vice president, Annelle
Grajeda, has gone on leave because of allegations that a former boyfriend
received improper union payments. Grajeda also is president of the SEIU's
California council and a second L.A.-based local.
The president of the union's biggest Michigan chapter, Rickman Jackson, a
former chief of staff to Freeman, has been removed from office. The Times
reported that his Bell Gardens residence was used as the address of a
housing corporation associated with Freeman's local. The SEIU later said
that the corporation improperly paid to lease the house; the union has
required Jackson to return $33,500 in payments.
The housing organization never obtained the tax exemption it sought when it
was founded as a nonprofit, and had lost the right to do business in
California. The city of Compton is investigating whether it was defrauded
when the corporation enlisted it as a partner in the nonprofit enterprise to
develop homes for low-income workers.
In the meantime, the SEIU has fired four of Freeman's top managers and
assistants. Two other employees either were fired or resigned after being
accused of threatening colleagues suspected of speaking to The Times,
according to an SEIU official.
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