Alejandro Stephens dies at 67; controversial labor leader

Alejandro Stephens, a longtime Los Angeles County union leader who went to prison for misusing funds from a labor nonprofit, died June 13 of complications of prostate cancer. He was 67.

Stephens, who worked for the county for more than three decades and spent 15 years as president of Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, died at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles, his niece Amber Harris said.

Stephens pleaded guilty in 2009 to federal mail fraud and tax evasion charges stemming from a 2004 scheme in which he steered $52,000 from a voter outreach program to his union reelection campaign. "I made a mistake, OK," Stephens told The Times last year. "I'm ashamed of what I did."

Although he was the only one convicted, federal prosecutors named a number of others as "co-schemers," including Miguel Contreras, the influential labor leader who died in 2005.

The case was one of several corruption scandals to hit the 2.1-million-member union, the nation's second-largest and a powerful player in Los Angeles labor politics.

Stephens was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year and was released from federal prison in early April after serving half of a four-month sentence, Harris said.

He lost his presidency in 2007 when his local merged with several others. He was later fired from his job as a county healthcare marketing representative when the Health Services Department accused him of insubordination for not returning to work after a long leave.

Born Sept. 23, 1943 in Panama, Stephens immigrated to the U.S. as a teenager. He started his labor career as a shop steward and was first elected president in 1992. During his tenure, former colleagues said, the local's membership grew from 18,000 county workers to more than 50,000.

"I worked with Alejandro Stephens for over 20 years. He was without a doubt one of the fiercest, most committed, dynamic, and charismatic labor leaders I have ever known," said Linda Dent, vice president of SEIU Local 721.

Stephens was the patriarch of a large extended family. "He was the oldest, the one we all looked up to and went to," Harris said.

"It's just disappointing that now if you Google his name, all you can find are the negative articles. We don't want 30-plus years of fantastic service overshadowed by one mistake," she added.

After his county career, Stephens continued his labor work in Panama. He helped organize Panama Canal and port workers and aided their efforts to win back pay from the Panamanian government, former colleagues said.

Stephens is also survived by daughters Delicia Morgan, Karla Jose Gaeta, Giselle Winston and Alexandra Stephens; son Alejandro Stephens Jr.; four brothers; a sister; six grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church, 2727 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.

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