SEIU president says he will seek aid from labor reform groups

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The president of the Service Employees International Union said this week that he plans to consult with two labor reform groups in an effort to clean up his scandal-stained organization, beginning with a new ethics code and an internal watchdog commission.

But leaders of both groups said Wednesday that they were skeptical of Andy Stern’s proposals.

“Why does he need a new code of ethics?” said Herman Benson, founder of the Assn. for Union Democracy. “People didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong? It’s preposterous.”

Three top SEIU officers have stepped aside in the aftermath of Times reports on the financial practices of the union’s biggest California local. The SEIU has demanded that a fourth official return thousands of dollars in what union representatives allege were improper payments made by another local headed by his former girlfriend.

The disclosures are now the subject of a federal criminal investigation and a separate congressional inquiry. They come as Stern is mobilizing his 2-million-member union -- the nation’s fastest growing -- to support Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

In a statement Wednesday, Stern’s office said it would ask all SEIU locals to immediately prohibit financial dealings with companies in which officers have an interest and adopt guidelines on avoiding nepotism and self-dealing.

The statement said the commission would be appointed by the union’s executive board and issue recommendations within 90 days.

Stern told The New York Times on Tuesday that he would turn for help to Benson’s group and Teamsters for a Democratic Union -- dissidents credited with fostering greater democracy in the labor movement. Benson and the Teamsters group’s national organizer, Ken Paff, said that the SEIU had not advised them that they would be recruited for such a role.

Paff said the union should have taken action long ago on the spending practices of the 160,000-member United Long-Term Care Workers union, based in Los Angeles.

The local and a related charity have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to small firms owned by the wife and mother-in-law of the SEIU chapter’s president, and spent similar sums on a Four Seasons Resorts golf tournament and a Beverly Hills cigar lounge.

“How could they not know?” Paff said of the SEIU’s national leadership.

“Hey, spending a lot of money at a fancy cigar place. How could you miss that?”

Like Benson, Paff said he would be willing to consult with the SEIU on his experiences as a reformer, but he was troubled that Stern has included in the union’s inquiry a dispute with the president of another California local, Sal Rosselli.

Stern has accused Rosselliof financial malpractice and fraud for using union money to set up a nonprofit and a legal defense fund to further his political aims within the SEIU. Based on those allegations, the SEIU has moved to take control of the Oakland-based local under a trusteeship.

Rosselli, a longtime critic of Stern, has denied any wrongdoing. Benson and Paff said they believe Stern has tried to silence Rosselli, in violation of democratic principles.

“The conflict he has with Sal Rosselli is a political conflict,” Benson said. “Stern is utilizing the corruption scandal to give himself cover for the action against Rosselli.”

Stern spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette denied those allegations. In a second statement Wednesday, released in response to the remarks by Benson and Paff, Stern said the union would “seek opinions from a diverse group of people, including those who do not always agree we us, so that we can make the best decisions for our rank-and-file members. We believe that this process will best serve our members and place this union at the leading edge of the reform effort in the labor movement.”

The president of United Long-Term Care Workers, Tyrone Freeman, has gone on leave. So has his former chief of staff, Rickman Jackson, who is president of the SEIU’s biggest Michigan local.

An SEIU executive vice president, Annelle Grajeda, is also on leave.

The union has accused her ex-boyfriend Alejandro Stephens of improperly receiving payments from her local and a Los Angeles County salary while drawing $75,000 last year in consulting fees from the SEIU state panel.

Freeman and Grajeda have said they did nothing wrong. Jackson has said in e-mails that he would have no comment, and attempts to interview Stephens have been unsuccessful.