The former president of California’s biggest union local was sentenced Monday to 33 months in federal prison for stealing from his low-income members to finance an expensive lifestyle that included being married to two women at the same time.
Declaring that Tyrone Freeman betrayed the “sacred trust” of the workers he represented, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins also ordered him pay to about $150,000 in restitution and barred him from holding office in any union for 13 years after he is released from prison.
“He lost sight of his mission,” Collins said of Freeman, once a rising star in the national labor movement who headed a Los Angeles-based local of the powerful Service Employees International Union.
Before Collins imposed the sentence, Freeman stood before the judge and cried as he asked for leniency, acknowledging that his “bad decisions” hurt the workers and his family.
“May God have mercy on me,” said Freeman, 44, wearing a dark business suit. “I am accountable for these bad decisions.”
The case grew out of a series of Times reports on Freeman’s financial practices as president of SEIU Local 6434. Beginning in 2008, the stories focused on his actions to direct tens of thousands of dollars from the union and a related nonprofit to relatives and friends, in addition to his lavish spending on a Four Seasons Resort golf tournament, restaurants and a Beverly Hills cigar club.
The resulting scandal quickly cost Freeman his job and rippled through the SEIU, leading to the ouster of several other union officials.
Last year, his wife, Pilar Planells, pleaded guilty to an income tax charge in connection with more than $540,000 she had received in consulting payments from the union while Freeman was president. To avoid prison, she agreed to pay about $130,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties, according to court records.
On Monday, prosecutors said they believed the sentence for Freeman was fair, although they had asked for a prison term of more than three years. “He abused some of the poorest working-class members of this community,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Elisa Fernandez said.
In arguing for a lighter punishment, Freeman’s attorneys said their client had devoted much of his life to helping others and caring for his family. Prosecutors responded to that portrayal by pointing to a slew of wrongdoing Freeman is accused of having committed — including bigamy and having sexual affairs with union staff members — beyond the offenses for which he was convicted in January.
Fernandez told the court Monday that Freeman’s bigamy was a motive for his crime because he was sending money to his first wife. According to court papers, his first wife did not know Freeman married Planells in 2006 until after the initial Times report was published. By then, the papers show, she had filed for divorce.
Collins said she did not consider problems in Freeman’s personal life in setting his sentence.
Freeman’s attorney Kelly Kramer said his client would appeal the conviction. “Mr. Freeman is grateful that the court rejected the government’s request for a longer sentence,” Kramer said in an email. “He is focused on making amends to his family, friends and community, as he has been over the past five years.”
SEIU Local 6434 and the union’s national office did not respond to requests for comment.
A rival union whose leaders left the SEIU after resisting efforts to shift some of their members to Freeman’s local welcomed Monday’s sentence. “People in SEIU’s leadership knew there was something wrong in the local for years and did nothing about it,” said John Borsos, secretary-treasurer of the National Union of Healthcare Workers.
Until his fall from grace, Freeman represented about 190,000 home-care workers in the SEIU chapter and an affiliated local, whose members made as little as $9 an hour. He wielded significant clout in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Washington, D.C., because he commanded deep sources of campaign money and foot soldiers. The SEIU’s leadership was grooming him for a larger role in the union’s national operations just as the scandal broke.
He was indicted last year on charges of embezzling from the union and using some of the stolen money to cover costs from his Hawaiian wedding to Planells. Other charges were mail fraud, violation of tax laws and giving false information to a mortgage lender.
The government alleged that he boosted his salary by illegally directing Local 6434 money to the affiliated organization he led, California United Homecare Workers. He was charged with similarly defrauding the union-funded nonprofit formed to build homes for low-wage workers.
At the time, Freeman’s annual compensation was about $200,000, making him one of the higher-paid union officers in the nation.
A jury convicted him on all counts, but Collins overturned the verdicts on one embezzlement charge for technical reasons and two tax allegations for insufficient evidence. The government dropped another tax charge before it went to the jury.
On Monday, the judge said her sentencing decision was “difficult” because Freeman overcame a harsh childhood to achieve impressive accomplishments as a labor leader at a young age. She also credited him with trying to turn his life around during the last several years. “He’s working on getting it back together,” Collins said.
However, she decided that Freeman deserved prison time because he “squandered” all of his successes by committing the “worst kind of fraud” — victimizing his own union.
“I’m no psychologist,” Collins said. “I don’t know why this happened.”
She ordered Freeman to surrender to authorities Dec. 9 to begin his sentence.