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Judge: Convicted ex-SEIU leader betrayed trust of members

A federal judge said the former president of California’s biggest union betrayed the “sacred trust” of the workers he represented when he stole from the union’s members to finance his expensive lifestyle.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins sentenced Tyrone Freeman to 33 months in federal prison, ordered him to pay about $150,000 in restitution and barred him from holding office in any union for 13 years after he is released from prison.

"He lost sight of his mission," Collins said of Freeman, once a rising star in the national labor movement who headed a Los Angeles-based local of the powerful Service Employees International Union.

Before Collins imposed the sentence, Freeman stood before the judge and cried as he asked for leniency, acknowledging that his "bad decisions" hurt the workers and his family.

"May God have mercy on me," Freeman, 44, told the judge.  "I am accountable for these bad decisions."

In arguing for a lighter punishment, Freeman's attorneys said their client had devoted much of his life to helping others and caring for his family. Prosecutors responded to that portrayal by pointing to a slew of wrongdoing Freeman is accused of having committed — including bigamy and having sexual affairs with union staff members — beyond the offenses for which he was convicted in January.

Fernandez told the court Monday that Freeman's bigamy was a motive for his crime because he was sending money to his first wife. According to court papers, his first wife did not know Freeman married Pilar Planells in 2006 until after the initial Times report was published. By then, the papers show, she had filed for divorce.

Planells pleaded guilty last year to an income tax charge in connection with more than $540,000 she had received in consulting payments from the union while Freeman was president. To avoid prison, she agreed to pay about $130,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties, according to court records.

Collins said she did not consider problems in Freeman's personal life in setting his sentence.

The case grew out of a series of Times reports on Freeman's financial practices as president of SEIU Local 6434. Beginning in 2008, the stories focused on his actions to direct tens of thousands of dollars from the union and a related nonprofit to relatives and friends, in addition to his lavish spending on a Four Seasons Resort golf tournament, restaurants and a Beverly Hills cigar club.

The resulting scandal quickly cost Freeman his job and rippled through the SEIU, leading to the ouster of several other union officials.

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paul.pringle@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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