House pursuing probe of SEIU local in L.A., panel chairman says

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Responding to Republican charges of foot-dragging, the Democratic chairman of the House labor panel said Tuesday that it is pursuing its inquiry into a spending scandal at the Service Employees International Union but taking care not to interfere with a criminal investigation.

The Education and Labor Committee’s top-ranked Republican, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita), suggested last week that the congressional examination of an SEIU local in Los Angeles had stalled because the union is a key ally of the Democratic Party.

On Tuesday, the committee chairman, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), said in a letter to McKeon that the inquiry is continuing, although the panel would “avoid interfering with the efforts of federal law enforcement officials.”

Miller opened the inquiry last month, after The Times disclosed that the Los Angeles local and a related charity have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to relatives and a friend of the chapter’s president.

The Times also reported that the local spent similar sums last year on a Four Seasons Resorts golf tournament, restaurants such as Morton’s steakhouse, a Beverly Hills cigar lounge and a Hollywood talent agency.

The revelations have prompted the local’s president, Tyrone Freeman, and two other SEIU officials to step aside from their posts. The federal criminal investigation involves several agencies, including the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, people familiar with the probe say.

Miller and his staff have declined to answer questions about the congressional inquiry, including when the panel would hold hearings. Congress is set to adjourn Sept. 26.

In Tuesday’s letter, Miller said the committee routinely defers to criminal investigations without derailing its own inquiries. He cited a 2007 letter from McKeon in which the Republican urged the committee not to compromise a federal investigation of a mine disaster.

Attempts to reach spokespersons for Miller and McKeon were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The SEIU gave about $10,000 to Miller’s campaign during the last annual reporting period, according to the Open Secrets website on political contributions.