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U.S. investigates L.A.-based union's election

The election of a Los Angeles union leader under fire for his labor group's spending practices is the subject of a government review that could force a new vote because of complaints that the contest was unfair to challengers.

The U.S. Labor Department is investigating allegations that Tyrone Freeman's union local made it nearly impossible for candidates not on his slate to qualify for the ballot, according to people familiar with the probe.

Freeman's local, a chapter of the giant Service Employees International Union, has denied that the election rules were tilted against challengers. Freeman and his slate won by default because no challenger gathered enough signatures to make the ballot.

The dispute comes as the SEIU has begun rooting through Freeman's books because of a Times report on the local's finances, SEIU spokesman Steve Trossman said Friday.

Freeman's local is called the United Long-Term Care Workers. Trossman said he hoped to have a preliminary report soon.

A source close to the union said 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 source, who told of discussing the allegations with Trossman, said they included complaints that Freeman fathered a child with a staffer, Pilar Planells, who later became his wife.

"Many people complained" that Planells was placed in a key administrative position after she started a relationship with Freeman, the source said. The source also said there were accusations that Freeman arbitrarily increased worker fees to pay the local's bills, and that he spent too much money on perks such as cars for himself and favored lieutenants.

In an e-mail, Trossman said the union was "reviewing records and conducting interviews" at the local but offered no details.

A Freeman spokesman said in an e-mail that all the complaints about his spending practices and Pilar Planells were false.

Earlier this month, The Times reported that the local and a related charity had paid at least $405,700 since 2006 -- not counting any outlays this year -- to firms that Freeman's wife and mother-in-law operate at their homes. The union also spent nearly $300,000 last year on a Four Seasons golf tournament, restaurants such as a Morton's steakhouse, a Beverly Hills cigar lounge and William Morris Agency, the Hollywood talent house.

Freeman did not file any disclosure forms revealing the 2006 and 2007 payments to his wife's video company, as required by federal law, until after The Times began inquiring about them last month, U.S. Labor Department officials say.

In response to the July inquiries, Trossman had issued a statement on behalf of Stern that said the union had received no allegations about Freeman's local. Freeman denied any wrongdoing.

The source, who said he was party to internal conversations about Freeman in 2002, told The Times last week: "The international knew that there were allegations of impropriety many years ago. This is not news to them."

Nelson Lichtenstein, director of UC Santa Barbara's Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy, said it appears that SEIU leaders, when confronted with qualms about Freeman, opted for a path taken by other union executives in similar straits.

"They say, 'Let's hope this thing goes away, ' " he said. " 'When it becomes egg on your face, then you do something about it.' "

Lichtenstein said the union clearly had an "investment" in Freeman, a Stern protege who has been a high-profile loyalist in the SEIU push to consolidate regional locals into statewide chapters. That effort is being resisted by a handful of dissidents, notably the president of a 150,000-worker Oakland affiliate.

Stern wants to move 65,000 workers from that local to Freeman's, a proposal that has triggered a nasty internecine fight.

The election dispute, meanwhile, centers on a requirement that prospective candidates collect about 4,800 signatures of dues payers within three weeks. Because most of the local's members work in individual homes, gathering the signatures in that period was impossible, said Washington, D.C., labor attorney Arthur Fox, who has helped dissident union members challenge the election.

"It totally ensured the election of all the incumbent officers," Fox said. Freeman and the other incumbents had been appointed before the election, after several locals were consolidated into one.

The Labor Department review has taken on a new context in light of The Times' reports about the spending habits of Freeman's local and a charity he founded.

In addition to the outlays to the firms owned by Freeman's wife and mother-in-law, the union paid a combined $219,000 in 2006 and 2007 to a video firm whose principals include a former employee of Freeman. A now-defunct minor league basketball team coached by Freeman's brother-in-law received $16,000 for what the union described as public relations, according to records and interviews.

The union also paid about $106,000 to a firm called The Filming, for which no incorporation record, business license, address or telephone listing could be found.

A second nonprofit that Freeman launched, the Long-Term Care Housing Corp., did not receive the tax-exempt status it sought, and had lost its right to do business in California because it failed to file tax returns, state and federal officials say. It claimed to have a "strong relationship" with the prominent California Community Foundation, which told The Times it had never heard of the group.

The address of the housing corporation, as listed on its website, is a Bell Gardens home owned by Freeman's former chief of staff, Rickman Jackson, who now heads an SEIU local in Michigan, property records show. Jackson has not responded to interview requests, and the housing corporation has not answered questions about whether he has been paid for use of his residence.

Freeman has said all of the expenses of the union and the two nonprofits have benefited his members. He said he has refunded nearly $10,000 that the union paid to the Grand Havana Room, a cigar lounge known for its celebrity clientele and invitation-only memberships.

Peter Dreier, an Occidental College politics professor who studies labor, said Stern might have no option other than to place Freeman's local under trusteeship and remove him.

"It's a tragic situation," said Dreier, who added that the local has done an excellent job in organizing workers. "The real question is will the union be weakened by this? If the SEIU cleans house and does what's necessary, the union can continue to thrive."

paul.pringle@latimes.com

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