5/12/08

Union politics-as-usual in Philadelphia

Leaders accused of using union money to buy votes

Did labor leader Herman J. "Pete" Matthews Jr. and his slate buy votes with union money in his re-election race for president of the Philadelphia's largest blue-collar union? A member of the opposition thinks so, and has filed a federal labor complaint reflecting the alleged campaign giveaways.

An earlier complaint by the member had accused Matthews of using union funds to hire an ex-convict, Sherman Harris, as his $74,000-a-year special assistant.

Mail ballots in the hotly contested race are to be counted tomorrow, seven weeks before the city labor contract expires June 30.

Ernest Garrett, a member of District Council 33 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, filed his amended complaint April 29. It names Matthews; Harris; secretary-treasurer Elizabeth "Bette" MacDonald; and Andy Bond, onetime head of the Water Department Employees' Local 394.

Both complaints were filed with Eric Feldman, chief of the regional office of the Department of Labor, and Peter Papinchak, district director of the Office of Labor Management Standards.

The amended complaint accuses Matthews, who is running for re-election for the $248,398-a-year presidency, MacDonald, who is running for the $193,075-a-year job as secretary-treasurer, and their campaign workers of "using union time, money, cars, property and other assets" to run the campaign to head the $20.7 million union.

Papinchak would neither confirm nor deny that either complaint had been filed.

Garrett said Labor Department investigators interviewed him about both complaints and advised him to file a complaint with the union's election committee, which he did.

Bob Wolper, spokesman for District Council 33, said: "There's nothing illegal going on. No union money is being used."

Wolper described the complaints as part of the political campaign by the opposition.

Garrett supports Evon Sutton, business agent of AFSCME Local 488, who is running against Matthews for the third time - once for vice president and twice for president on opposition slates.

Sutton is the wife of District Council 33's former president James Sutton, who was unseated by Matthews in 1996.

In his amended complaint, Garrett said that Matthews used a union-paid video, dated April 8, to deliver a "state of the union" message to nearly 10,000 members, as campaign material. In the video, a narrator stated that the information was background for contract negotiations.

Matthews said the union was debt-free, had no co-pays for health care and provided new services to union members. Garrett said that the video omitted important details, such as how much the union-owned JFK Hospital was sold for and what was done with the money.

Wolper said Matthews does not say in the video that he's running for re-election.

At a strike-authorization meeting April 8 at the Spectrum, Matthews introduced Mayor Nutter, endorsed last year by District Council 33 as a mayoral candidate, to the membership, but never took a strike-authorization vote, according to attendees.

During the meeting, five flat-screen TVs, five laptop computers, five PlayStations, and five iPods, among other things, were given away, according to attendees.

Campaign workers for Matthews' slate have been passing out backpacks, key chains, water bottles and T-shirts, along with campaign literature to the members, according to the complaint.

These items have been distributed at the same time as members have been casting mail ballots in the election.

"I know he has a right to run for [president] and his team has a right to run for their offices also. My complaint is that it is a crime under Section 501(A) [of labor regulations] to take our money to do that," wrote Garrett in his amended complaint.

"If Pete Matthews and Betty McDonald can take my dues and get away with this, why can't anybody? It's time to clean up D.C. 33 because, right now, it's Earl Stout all over again," according to the complaint.

Stout a former District Council 33 president who died in 2006, was convicted in federal court in 1990 of taking more than $700,000 from the union. He served 40 months in federal prison.

In the earlier complaint, filed April 9, Garrett had accused Matthews of violating federal law by hiring Harris, 50, who was released from federal prison in November 2005 after serving a 20-month sentence in a $2.1 million kickback scheme when he was a Water Department supervisor.

Earlier, District Council 33 attorney Sam Spear had claimed that Harris was paid through the union's health-and-welfare fund, not with union money.

However, federal labor documents, called LM-2s, show that Harris was paid with union money: $575 in 2004-05; $51,650 in 2005-06; $74,000 in 2006-07.

Wolper said that Harris' federal sentencing judge, William H. Yohn Jr., asked Matthews for a letter saying that he would hire Harris in the union when released from prison.

Convicted felons are prohibited from serving as advisers, officers or consultants to unions for 13 years after their convictions, according to federal labor regulations.

(philly.com)

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