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Service workers express outrage over alleged misuse of SEIU funds

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They make subsistence wages tending to the sick and elderly, minus the dues paid to the union local whose charismatic former president promised again and again to make the caregivers' own lives better.

Now, the workers are told, the same fallen leader, Tyrone Freeman, owes the Service Employees International Union more than $1 million that officials say he misappropriated from the Los Angeles local to enrich his relatives and himself.

"I go back to those days when he was calling us brothers and sisters," said Sergio Shokouh, 56. "He cheated us."

With 160,000 members, not counting 30,000 in an affiliated organization, the United Long-Term Care Workers is the largest union local of any kind in California, and one of the biggest in the country.

At the same time, it is unusual because its members work mainly in private homes, and thus are scattered far and wide.

They do not share a factory floor or construction site, where they could consult with one another and keep an eye on their representatives. Their lack of money compounds their lack of clout.

Experts say all of this might have made their local ripe for exploitation.

"You have people in isolated workplaces who are interacting with the people they're caring for more than with other workers," said Eileen Boris, who chairs UC Santa Barbara's feminist studies department and is writing a book on home-care workers. Moreover, she said, "it's the poor caring for the poor."

Since The Times began reporting on Freeman's spending in August, the paper has received a steady stream of email and telephone calls from people who identified themselves as members of the local, making $9 an hour or so.

Most expressed shock at the revelations that Freeman channeled millions from the local and a related charity to his wife's and mother-in-law's business accounts; spent members' dues on fancy restaurants and resorts; and allegedly used union funds to pay hotel and other bills during his wedding in Hawaii.

Nearly all the members vented feelings of outrage and betrayal.

Torrance resident Shokouh is one of three who sat down recently to discuss their anger and to demand justice, beginning with the return of the money Freeman is accused of draining from the union's coffers.

In many ways, the three workers are typical of the local's membership. Two are immigrants, and one is African-American. Two have cared for family members confined to their homes, a common arrangement.

All scrape by with second and third jobs. What sets them apart is that they have been vocal in their demands for reform in the union, and are among the few who attended SEIU hearings on Freeman, who has denied any wrongdoing.

"A lot of people don't know what's going on," said Stephen Sherman, 88, of Van Nuys, who has been caring for his daughter. He said most members, especially those who can find only part-time work, are too strapped to travel across town to participate in union proceedings.

"How can anybody attend anything when they make $50 a week?" Sherman added.

Auri Bustamante, who was sitting beside him, nodded.

"Freeman takes a lot of our money, and we don't even have medical insurance," said Bustamante, 55, a Los Angeles area resident who is being treated for lymphoma. "We have to get to the bottom of it and find our where all our money went. We have to get it back."

The SEIU has insisted on restitution as part of an order last month banning Freeman from the organization forever. The organization removed him from office after the Times reports, which prompted an ongoing federal criminal investigation and a congressional inquiry, among other probes.

SEIU President Andy Stern said the expulsion of the man he once mentored showed that the union was serious about protecting the interests of workers who "do some of the toughest jobs anywhere."

Shokouh, Sherman and Bustamante said Stern got the last part right but they were taking a wait-and-see attitude about a pledge the union made to enforce broader ethical reforms.

They noted that Stern appointed Freeman to the local leadership post, as he did two other prominent SEIU officers who have come under scrutiny.

Rickman Jackson, Freeman's former chief of staff, has been ousted as president of the union's biggest Michigan local for taking improper payments from a housing nonprofit. Annelle Grajeda, an SEIU executive vice president who also heads its state council and a second L.A. chapter, has stepped aside pending a union investigation of payments to her ex-boyfriend.

"We need new people," said Bustamante.

Even with the lymphoma, she has been taking care of an ailing woman. "When she's very sick and I have to give her a shower, it's hard on my body," said Bustamante, who is from Guatemala. "I had my last chemotherapy last week."

Shokouh, an Iranian immigrant who cared for his 91-year-old mother until her death earlier this year, said he had once confronted Freeman about the need for improved health insurance and other benefits for many union members.

"He said, 'We will work hard for you.' He convinced me that union money is spent wisely," Shokouh recounted, shaking his head.

Sherman said he encountered Freeman outside a hearing that led SEIU officials to place his local in trusteeship. "I said, 'You messed up and you have to come clean.' He said, 'That's your version of it. You don't know the bottom line.' "

Folding his hands resolutely, Sherman added that Freeman had nothing more to say. "I know what he did to us," he said. "He ruined our union."

SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said that the trustee now running the local, John Ronches, is doing "heroic" work to right Freeman's wrongs.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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