SEIU, beset by spending scandal, places a senior manager on leave

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The Service Employees International Union announced Thursday that it had placed a senior manager at its biggest California local on leave and that two lower-ranking staffers had lost their jobs, because of allegations that other employees were retaliated against in connection with a widening spending scandal.

The Times reported last month that some workers who did not immediately sign a letter of support for the Los Angeles local’s president, Tyrone Freeman, who is at the center of the scandal, had their union cellphone service canceled and were transferred to distant jobs.

One staffer who balked at signing the letter was later fired, according to co-workers.


During a subsequent staff meeting, some employees threatened to retaliate further against anyone who provided information to The Times about Freeman, several of those in attendance said.

In a statement Thursday, SEIU President Andy Stern said: “Any acts of intimidation or retaliation against our members, staff or leaders are deeply offensive to our core values as a union, and we will move immediately and aggressively to bring disciplinary action, including termination if necessary, against any responsible parties.”

A union spokeswoman said the fired Bay Area staffer has been rehired, the transfers have been revoked, and the cell service has been restored.

The alleged retaliation and threats are part of a federal criminal investigation into the local’s spending practices, people familiar with the probe say.

The manager placed on leave, Matthew Maldonaldo, is a top aide to Freeman, who stepped aside last month; he could not be reached for comment.

The two lower-ranking employees also could not be located for interviews. SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said one was fired and the other resigned.

Neither Ringuette nor Stern offered details on the alleged conduct that prompted the union to take action against the three.

“There have been some steps in the right direction,” said one of the employees who complained of being retaliated against. He asked not to be identified.

“There is a wait-and-see attitude, because there are still some loose cannons floating around,” he said.

In addition to Freeman, two other leading SEIU officers have stepped aside in the aftermath of The Times’ reports.

The SEIU has demanded that a fourth official return thousands of dollars in what union spokespersons say were improper payments made by another local he used to head.

Freeman’s local and a related charity have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to home-based firms owned by his wife and mother-in-law, as well as $16,000 to a now-defunct minor league basketball team coached by his brother-in-law, The Times has reported.

The local also has paid $219,000 to a small video company run by a former staffer, Brian Cheatham.

Three other former employees have said that Cheatham is a close friend of Freeman and his wife, Pilar Planells.

The local spent at least $300,000 last year on a Four Seasons Resorts golf tournament, a Beverly Hills cigar club, restaurants such as Morton’s steakhouse and a consulting contract with the William Morris Agency, the Hollywood talent shop.

And the union has paid $82,000 to a Florida video firm, an outlay described as a contribution to a nonprofit, according to the local’s financial filings with the U.S. Labor Department.

The firm is not a nonprofit, and its chief executive told The Times that the company never received the money.

The 160,000-member local, United Long-Term Care Workers, represents low-wage caregivers who tend the elderly and infirm.