Service union bans former California local president for life

The Service Employees International Union has imposed a lifetime ban on the former president of its largest California local and ordered him to repay more than $1 million that it says he misappropriated from the labor organization.

SEIU President Andy Stern announced the actions Wednesday after reviewing the findings of an internal probe of Tyrone Freeman’s spending practices as head of the 160,000-member United Long-Term Care Workers and a 30,000-member affiliated chapter that represent low-wage caregivers.

“It is tragic and unconscionable that a young leader with such great potential would violate not only the constitution of the international union, but the trust of his members,” Stern said in a statement.

An attorney for Freeman, 39, issued a statement that said his client was “disappointed by Andy Stern’s decision.” Freeman had been a protege of Stern, who originally appointed him to the local position.

“Tyrone Freeman’s career has been about helping workers and finding innovative ways to lift them out of poverty,” said the statement from attorney Kelly Kramer. “His goal has always been to improve their lives.”

The Times reported in August that the Los Angeles-based local and a related worker-training charity paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-based video and day-care services owned by Freeman’s wife and mother-in-law, respectively. The local spent similar sums on a Four Seasons Resorts golf tournament, expensive restaurants, a Beverly Hills cigar lounge and a Hollywood talent agency.

Freeman is now the target of a federal criminal investigation.

The SEIU’s inquiry included hearings conducted by former California Supreme Court Justice Joseph Grodin. His report to Stern said Freeman had engaged in a pattern of financial malpractice and self-dealing, according to the SEIU.

In its statement, the union did not specify which payments it has ordered Freeman to return. But the internal investigation, overseen by former California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, alleged that the spending that benefited Freeman’s relatives could not be justified.

Freeman’s local paid the video company owned by his wife more than $650,000, according to federal records and the SEIU. The worker-training charity paid his mother-in-law’s day-care service more than $90,000 annually for several years, records show.

The SEIU examination also found that Freeman improperly directed the affiliated California United Homecare Workers and a housing nonprofit to pay him about $2,500 a month each.

The Long Term Care Housing Corp., which Freeman helped launch, gave him an additional lump sum of $14,500, the union says.

The SEIU has further accused Freeman of misappropriating about $13,000 that he spent at the Grand Havana Room, a Beverly Hills cigar club. The union says Freeman reimbursed the local for $9,800 of the expenses after The Times inquired about them.

The local also paid more than $200,000 to a second video service run by a man who sources say was a member of Freeman’s wedding party. In addition, the SEIU has accused Freeman of billing the union for $8,100 in hotel, restaurant, bar, rental car and massage charges incurred during his Hawaiian nuptials.

Most of the local’s members make about $9 an hour caring for the elderly and infirm in private homes.

“Today’s decision sends a clear message across our union,” Stern said in his statement. “Our members do some of the toughest jobs anywhere, and we will not tolerate any actions violating their trust or putting their interests at risk.”

The SEIU’s statement said Freeman could appeal the ban and restitution order if he is exonerated in the criminal investigation, which is being conducted by the U.S. Labor Department, the FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office.

The House Labor Committee has opened a separate inquiry into the scandal.

Freeman went on leave shortly after the Times articles were published, and the SEIU subsequently removed him from office.

The scandal has also led to the firings of several Freeman associates and the ouster of the president of the SEIU’s biggest Michigan local, Rickman Jackson, Freeman’s former chief of staff.

The Times reported that the housing nonprofit was using Jackson’s Bell Gardens home as an address. The SEIU has since accused Jackson of receiving $33,500 in improper lease payments, and said he agreed to repay the money.

A third SEIU official, Annelle Grajeda, an executive vice president of the national organization, has been on leave since August while the union investigates complaints that she may have been involved in improper payments to her ex-boyfriend.

Grajeda, who is also president of the SEIU’s state council and another L.A. local, has denied any wrongdoing.

Pringle is a Times staff writer.