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Finances of charity run by SEIU official scrutinized

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A Bay Area officer of the scandal-clouded Service Employees International Union has collected double salaries, one as a city transit worker and the other from a charity that receives much of its funding from the labor organization and corporate interests, records show.

In addition, the nonprofit paid more than $16,000 in rent for the officer's home in 2007, the most recent year for which the charity's tax return is available, according to his son, who is also on the charity's payroll.

James Bryant, who earned just under $68,000 as a transit station agent in 2007, received about $117,000 that year as president of the San Francisco chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, according to the tax return and the city's Municipal Transportation Agency. He was also paid or reimbursed about $10,000 as an executive board member for SEIU Local 1021, whose political committee he chairs, the union's financial statements show.

The nonprofit's tax-exempt purpose is to promote civil rights, voter education and the interests of black workers. Its biggest contributors include Pacific Gas & Electric and other corporate benefactors that have enlisted it to campaign for or against ballot initiatives dealing with energy and land development.

Nonprofit watchdogs say those relationships raise questions of whether the institute is straying from its charitable mission. The institute's corporate supporters say the nonprofit's campaign work helped preserve funding for social programs and supported the construction of affordable housing.

Bryant, who is in his 50s, is the latest of several SEIU California officers whose financial practices have come under scrutiny. He declined to be interviewed.

On Tuesday, the SEIU said one of its highest-ranking officials, Annelle Grajeda, who went on leave last summer after the union began examining payments made to her former boyfriend, has resigned her leadership positions. Grajeda was an executive vice president of the national organization and head of the union's California council and a Los Angeles local. The SEIU said its inquiry found that she committed no wrongdoing and that she had decided to become an assistant to the national union's secretary-treasurer.

Bryant's son, Joseph, who is the institute's associate director and acting executive director, said his father could not comment because the SEIU is reviewing an internal complaint made against him in connection with at least some of the nonprofit's finances.

In written responses to questions from The Times, Joseph Bryant, 26, said his father's nonprofit position is "considered annual not 'full time,' " and that he earns the second salary by working "evenings, weekends, holidays and whenever appropriate to complete his required duties."

He said the charity's rent payments for the house amount to less than half of his father's monthly mortgage bills and are justified because more than 75% of the home is devoted to the nonprofit. The charity paid $5,000 to use the house in 2006, he said. It has also rented office space at a San Francisco union hall at the same time it was paying rent on the house, he said. He said the payments for the house continued last year.

James Bryant bought the $550,000 home with his wife, Josefina Bryant, an administrative supervisor for the SEIU local, in 2006, according to the San Francisco assessor's office.

Experts in nonprofits say the salaries and house rental payments could be viewed as self-dealing.

"There is just a conflict of interest all over this thing," said Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, an online review service. "It looks like something that should be reported to a government entity."

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, said Joseph Bryant's job -- the son says his salary last year was $62,000 -- is similarly troubling.

"In effect, it's like putting himself on the payroll," Borochoff said of James Bryant.

A spokesman for the SEIU local, Steve Stallone, said the union is reviewing the internal complaint against James Bryant, but declined to discuss specifics. A union member brought the complaint. "If wrongdoing is found, appropriate action will be taken," Stallone said, adding that penalties could range from a reprimand to expulsion from the union.

The local represents 58,000 city, county and other public-sector workers, as well as nonprofit and nursing industry employees. The SEIU has about 2 million members in North America, more than 700,000 of them in California.

The former president of an L.A.-based SEIU local, Tyrone Freeman, has been the subject of a federal criminal investigation. He was fired after The Times reported his 160,000-member local and a related charity paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-based firms owned by his relatives.

Freeman's former chief of staff was removed as head of the SEIU's largest Michigan local for allegedly receiving improper lease payments for his Bell Gardens house.

There is no indication that any inquiry outside the SEIU has focused on Bryant or his chapter of the Randolph Institute. The national organization's founder and namesake, who died in 1979, was a civil rights pioneer who unionized railway porters.

The president of the national institute, Clayola Brown, declined to answer questions about Bryant, citing the internal SEIU inquiry. The institute is affiliated with the AFL-CIO as an advocacy group for African Americans; a spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO said it had no information about the San Francisco chapter's finances.

A Times examination found that:

* James Bryant has served as president of the San Francisco nonprofit's five-member board while receiving one of the charity's two largest salaries (its former executive director was paid a similar amount), its 2006 and 2007 tax returns show. Nonprofit watchdogs say charity boards should consist of independent overseers, typically unsalaried volunteers, except for the executive director.

"There's an implicit conflict of interest," said Charity Navigator's Berger.

Joseph Bryant, who is also on the board, said that the panel's structure is in compliance with California and federal law and that there is no conflict of interest, including in its setting of salaries for members.

* Although the institute chapter's website says James Bryant has run the charity for 10 years, the group didn't receive its tax exemption until 2006, retroactive to its 2005 incorporation, according to the Internal Revenue Service. Charities generally must obtain an exemption before donors can claim tax deductions for contributions. Joseph Bryant said the charity raised and spent money in previous years under the umbrella of the national institute.

* The charity registered as a California nonprofit corporation in 2005, but its corporate status has been suspended because it failed to file required documents with the secretary of state's office, an agency spokeswoman said. Joseph Bryant said the charity had been unaware of the suspension and has since submitted the paperwork.

* Pacific Gas & Electric has contributed about $290,000 since 2005, a company spokesman said. The nonprofit has been a vocal supporter of a PG&E-funded campaign to defeat proposals to replace the company's San Francisco operations with a city-owned utility. A PG&E contractor, TRC, has paid the charity for community relations work on a project to dismantle an old power plant at Hunter's Point, according to Joseph Bryant.

A campaign financed by Lennar Homes also paid the institute tens of thousands of dollars last year for work promoting a redevelopment measure, said Alex Tourk, a spokesman for Lennar. Tourk said the nonprofit did voter outreach in the area where affordable housing would be built.

Experts say a charity should only act as an advocate for corporate donors if such activities coincide with the nonprofit's tax-exempt purpose.

A spokesman for the PG&E campaign said the work done by Bryant's nonprofit on the utility's behalf advanced its charitable goals because the cost of launching a city power agency could have reduced social services championed by the institute chapter.

Joseph Bryant said all of the donations from corporate supporters were spent on the nonprofit's "core mission." He said the money enabled the group to register African American voters, publish newsletters for more than 10,000 residents and push legislation in support of green jobs.

Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy said the charity should not act as "a surrogate" for PG&E while getting a taxpayer subsidy. "Why is this being done through a nonprofit entity?" he said of the charity's efforts against the city utility proposals. "It seems the corporation should be doing this on its own."

The former executive director of Bryant's nonprofit, Guillermo Rodriguez, now runs a job-training and employment-projection program for the city of San Francisco. Rodriguez, who was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, declined to be interviewed.

In 2002, the San Francisco Public Housing Authority paid the institute more than $50,000, primarily to register low-income voters and to help stage community events, said Henry Alvarez, the executive director. That was three years before the nonprofit received its tax exemption. Joseph Bryant said the payment was reported on the tax return of the national institute.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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