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Cement masons union trustees to pay $630,000 to settle whistle-blower suit

Trustees for a Southern California cement masons union and their administrative firm will pay $630,000 to settle a federal whistle-blower lawsuit that accused them of firing three employees for speaking up about alleged wrongdoing by the labor organization's leader, officials said Tuesday.

In announcing the settlement, the U.S. Department of Labor said the money will be paid to the former employees in lost wages and damages. The department filed the suit last year, alleging that the trusts' director of audits, Cheryle Robbins, was discharged because she questioned the financial practices of Scott Brain, business manager of Cement Masons Union Local 600 in Bell Gardens.

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The suit was later amended to allege that Louise Bansmer and Cory Rice were fired for supporting Robbins.

"This case was particularly galling because three people were all punished for doing the right thing," Assistant Labor Secretary Phyllis C. Borzi said in a statement Tuesday. "Robbins, Rice and Bansmer suffered serious financial consequences because they stood up for what was right."

Robbins cooperated in a related criminal investigation of Brain by the department, officials said. No criminal charges have been filed. Brain, who is also a union trustee, rejected the settlement and remains a defendant in the department's civil suit. A trial is set for February.

Brain's attorney, Peter Morris, said, "There is not a single piece of evidence in this case" that his client retaliated against Robbins. Morris said Brain had nothing to do with the firings of Bansmer and Rice, who are mother and son.

The attorney said another trustee he represents, Jaime Briceno, similarly has not agreed to the settlement because the government's allegations are false.

Morris said the criminal investigation is focused on the retaliation allegations and whether Brain misused union funds. He said the evidence shows Brain did nothing wrong.

The settlement calls on the trustees to ask for Brain's resignation from their boards, which oversee pensions and other benefits for Local 600 and a second chapter of the union. Morris said Brain will not resign.

The administrative firm named in the suit, Zenith American Solutions, runs the trust office. In a statement Tuesday, Zenith Chief Executive Art Schultz said: "We have been working closely with the Department of Labor to address their concerns.

"This settlement allows us to move forward and focus on the needs of the working men and women participating in the union benefit plans we service."

Citing records that were turned over to investigators, The Times reported in 2013 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.

Later, Robbins was the only employee not retained by Zenith when the trust office was reorganized. Bansmer and Rice were fired after Robbins.

Under Tuesday's settlement, Robbins will receive the bulk of the $630,000 and have her pension benefits restored. She earlier collected $200,000 in a separate, wrongful-termination suit she filed as an individual.

Robbins said she was happy with the Labor Department's settlement. "I feel vindicated," she said.

Bansmer and Rice said they also were pleased with the settlement.

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