Andy Stern's campaign for Labor Secretary

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Looking out for #1: SEIU bigs' sham exposed

Leaders of the Service Employees International Union plan to announce the formation of an ethics committee in the wake of allegations of misspending by union officials at several big locals.

The purpose of the committee would be to improve oversight of union leaders. It also would address complaints that although the union under President Andy Stern has excelled at adding new members and political organizing, it has failed to adequately address issues of ethics and union democracy.

A series of emails between Mr. Stern and Matt Witt, a senior Stern adviser, from June and August indicate that the committee was conceived before recent media reports of misspending at the union's biggest local in California. The emails, which were reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, also indicate that the committee would help shore up Mr. Stern's legacy and make it easier for him to pursue opportunities outside the union.

Michelle Ringuette, an SEIU spokeswoman, confirmed that the union's executive board met Tuesday and discussed ethics proposals. Union officials said an announcement could come as early as Wednesday.

Mr. Stern said in a statement that the union is "committed to leading a reform movement within labor and insisting on the highest standards." The SEIU has "taken immediate actions to deal with the issues involving California locals, and we are constantly reviewing our standards to ensure that the interests of our members...are fully protected."

The SEIU has grown rapidly under Mr. Stern and it says it now has two million members, making it one of the nation's largest unions. Critics of Mr. Stern within the union have said that his focus on membership growth has led to less-democratic practices, such as the creation of ever-bigger locals through mergers and the appointment of handpicked leaders to run them.

Recently, ethics issues involving appointees have come to the fore. In one instance, a 160,000-member SEIU local in Los Angeles and a related charity were reported to have allegedly paid more than $850,000 to the union's head, his wife and firms owned by his wife and her mother. The House Committee on Education and Labor has said it would open an inquiry on the matter.

Meanwhile, the SEIU will hold a hearing to decide whether to take over the 150,000-member San Francisco local, which the union alleges misspent union funds. Officials of that local say they are being targeted because the local's president, Sal Rosselli, has opposed some of Mr. Stern's policies, including merging locals. Ms. Ringuette dismissed those claims.

The emails between Messrs. Stern and Witt indicate that Mr. Witt had urged forming an ethics committee in June because of a growing perception that the union had grown "at the expense of democracy and ethics."

But attention on the alleged financial misconduct added urgency to the matter. Media reports have "set in motion events that will make it hard for you to pursue other opportunities outside SEIU," Mr. Witt wrote to Mr. Stern in an email dated Aug. 15.

On Aug. 16, Mr. Stern asked Mr. Witt to write a statement "announcing the formation of a process to ensure democracy and accountability" led by independent experts and SEIU leaders.


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