LOCAL

L.A. union trusts' attorney accused of conspiring to fire whistle-blower

Suit says Melissa Cook conspired to fire Cheryle Robbins as part of alleged scheme to protect union official
Robbins has helped investigators in a corruption probe of the head of Cement Masons Union Local 600

The federal government Monday accused a trust attorney for a Los Angeles cement workers union of retaliating against an employee who helped investigators in a corruption probe of the labor organization's leader.

In an amendment to a civil lawsuit, the U.S. Labor Department contends that San Diego-based Melissa Cook and her firm violated the law by conspiring to fire the employee as part of an alleged scheme to protect the president of Cement Masons Union Local 600.

The civil complaint, which was originally filed in U.S. District Court in May, also names as defendants the local's top official, Scott Brain, and several trustees who oversee funds that pay for the cement workers' pensions, healthcare and other benefits.

Brain is under criminal investigation by the Labor Department, according to sources close to the inquiry. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the probe. Brain has denied any wrongdoing.

In the civil filing, the government asks the court to hold Cook and other defendants liable for back pay, with interest, that the Labor Department says is owed to the fired employee, Cheryle Robbins. The lawsuit also seeks to have Cook return fees she received from the union's trusts and have her permanently banned from serving as a fiduciary to such organizations.

Cook did not respond to requests for comment Monday. She previously has said she has done nothing improper.

Citing records that were turned over to investigators, The Times reported last year that Brain allegedly supported efforts to place Robbins on leave in 2011 after she complained about millions of dollars in missing employer contributions to the union trusts. Robbins was later fired.

The union, whose 1,700 members helped construct Disney Hall, Staples Center and other signature Southern California buildings, is a force in local and state politics as a regular donor to election campaigns.

Brain has been under investigation over allegations that he allowed employers to skip the payments to the funds, spent dues money on an extramarital affair with Cook and punished Robbins and other whistle-blowers, according to the sources.

Cook resigned from the trusts after a federal agent called her in May 2013 and asked if she was having an affair with Brain, said people familiar with the events who were not allowed to discuss the matter.

The government's suit says Cook and Brain "admit to being in a romantic relationship beginning in May of 2012 which continued at least through March 2014."

Attempts to reach Brain for comment Monday were unsuccessful.

The suit alleges that Cook set out to remove Robbins from her job as audit and collections director for the trusts because Cook believed she planned to complain to the union's international president about Brain's handling of the employer contributions. The complaint says Cook also was motivated to get Robbins fired because of her "participation in a [Labor Department] investigation."

The government accuses Cook of ordering a search of Robbins' email to see if she was communicating with the Labor Department about Brain. Cook reviewed Robbins' cellphone records for the same reason, according to the suit.

According to the complaint, Cook took other measures to shield Brain, including encouraging "at least one trustee to direct his union staff not to cooperate with any investigation by the [Labor Department] ..."

Cook and her firm, Melissa W. Cook & Associates, "have chilled the exercise of protected rights by sending the message that employees will be subject to adverse action for speaking to the Department of Labor," the complaint alleges.

It notes that the attorney and her firm last week filed for protection from creditors under the bankruptcy code.

Robbins, 65, who says she has been unable to find another job, called Monday's filing against Cook "appropriate."

"She was one of the main players and totally instrumental in my removal," Robbins said.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

@pringlelatimes

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