DC 37 Crashes

While the union leadership sinks, one reformer tries to stay afloat.

When DC 37 executive director Stanley Hill's two top aides, Marty Lubin and Mark Shaplo, resigned on Monday, November 23, it signaled the beginning of the endgame between reformers and Hill's embattled old guard for control of the city's largest municipal union. A key Hill ally, Local 376's 68-year-old president Joe DeCanio was indicted last Friday by Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau. Facing up to 12 years in prison for his role in union election fraud and a complex turkey-buying kickback scheme involving half a dozen DC 37 local presidents, DeCanio forced Shaplo's resignation by identifying him to the DA as the key fixer in the fraudulent 1996 citywide contract ratification, said sources close to the investigation.

DeCanio, or "Turkey Joe" as he's now called, was the former chauffeur for the late mob-connected DC 37 boss Vinnie Parisi. According to sources, DeCanio also identified DC 37 building security manager Ralph Pepe as the man responsible for stealing ballots in last November's Local 375 election.

But despite Friday's indictment of DeCanio, the resignations of Hill's top aides, and 56 separate investigations by the D.A., the only other local president ousted from office so far is Roy Commer, the reform candidate elected president of Local 375 last March.

Ousted Local 375 president Roy Commer
Michael Kenneth Lopez
Ousted Local 375 president Roy Commer

"Every time there's a complaint of fraud," said Mark Rosenthal, president of Local 973, "Stanley Hill sides with the crooks. Commer should be reinstated immediately."

When Commer arrived for work on Monday, November 2, at the 125 Barclay Street headquarters of AFSCME's DC 37 in lower Manhattan, he was prepared for another week of wrenching conflict. The previous week, he'd clashed with executive director Stanley Hill over Commer's allegation of misuse of Local 375's legal services trust fund. That Wednesday, he'd fought with the board over what he saw as cronyism and patronage in the $500,000 legal services fund, which provides members with certain legal advice for free. But what the 47-year-old Staten Island Boy Scout leader failed to anticipate was that Hill had already approved orders to change the locks on his office. Hill did not return calls from the Voice.

"I asked Ralph Pepe [DC 37's chief of operations] why he had changed the locks," said Commer. "He told me he would never have done it if Stanley hadn't told him to." Pepe refused to speak to the Voice. According to sources, DeCanio alleged that Pepe was also responsible for stealing ballots in the November election. Ironically, he is said to have stollen the wrong ballots—those for 375's executive board rather than its top officers. Sources say Pepe is now cooperating with the investigation. But these revelation come too late for Commer.

After serving less than seven months as head of DC 37's 6000-member Civil Service Technical Guild, Local 375, Commer has been ousted from office. On October 28, his executive board voted to suspend him,

charging that Commer had tried to shift control of the legal services fund to an outside attorney who supposedly provided Commer with free legal advice. The executive board also charged him with supporting the Committee for Real Change (CRC) without its authorization.

Attorney Arthur Z. Schwartz, who sits on the board of the Association for Union Democracy, is handling Commer's appeal to be reinstated as president. But Judge Allen Schwartz ruled on November 9 that Commer had not exhausted all his internal appeals with AFSCME.

Just days before Commer was suspended, Tom Dawes, the organizing director of the CRC, was fired from his Local 375 staff job. Dawes was accused of circulating copies of a New York Times article critical of the union among other charges.

Reform has not come easily to Hill's 120,000-member labor empire. Stanley Hill and his allies still control the most glittering prizes in municipal trade unionism: a $90 million payroll, the largest political war chest (amount tk) in the city, and $159 million yearly in benefit funds under its sole discretion.

Despite the D.A.'s investigation and an upcoming 60 Minutes exposé providing new, on-camera testimony from DC 37 insiders about alleged election fraud, mob hits, and missing millions, Hill can say, "I'm still here, damn it!"

Tenure for the top jobs in Local 375 has been much more uncertain. Roy Commer's apparent ejection marks the fourth time in less than a year that the presidency has changed hands. The night of his first election, in November 1997, Commer was declared the winner in a contest over long-serving Hill loyalist Lou Albano. But when election officials returned to count the thousands of ballots in the remaining contests, they discovered they were missing from DC 37's locked security office. AFSCME declined to investigate the theft, kept Albano in office, and ruled that the election be held again. In the April election, Commer won by an even greater margin.

The ballot theft so outraged the members that Commer's slate increased from three members to 12 in the March election, though the reformers failed to win a majority on the local's 52-member executive board. But it was top members of the reform ticket, first vice president Uma Kutwal, second vice president Sreedar Gowda, and labor and political activity chair Mike Gimbel, who Commer feels sided with the Albano forces to purge him, even though he says he financed their campaigns by borrowing on his credit card. Ultimately, their defection was partly triggered by Commer's failure to deliver the most basic union perk—release time.

Many of the charges against Commer range "from the laughable to the deplorable," said Richard Steier, a veteran labor reporter. But the only credible charge was that he advocated pulling the local out of AFSCME, which Commer denies.

"I've been trying to find out what we get for the $12 million we give to DC 37 every year," explained Commer sitting at the dining room table of his Staten Island home, where copies of the local's documents are spread out. "One of the things we get is PELS [Professional Employee Legal Services]. The members are supposed to get help with divorces, mortgage closings, wills. But look what's happened over the years," said Commer, pointing to an old investigative report. "The fund starts out in 1981 spending $100,000. Now it's spending over half a million at the same time the caseload handled by the lawyers is falling." Commer charges that PELS attorneys are running a private business on union premises. "It's theft of services. The trustees either knew this was going on or looked the other way.

"I asked Stanley Hill why he signed off on these expenditures every year," said Commer. "He said it was a matter of local autonomy."

According to Commer, one of the first things he did after taking office was to alert City Comptroller Alan Hevesi to the PELS fund irregularities. The comptroller's office acknowledges that Commer reported the fund's problems. "We're taking his allegations seriously,' said David Neustadt, the comptroller's spokesperson. "We're including Local 375's legal services fund in the audit."

But what of the charges that Commer tried to turn control of the fund over to Stuart Salles, a lawyer who the board says gave Commer free office space and free legal advice?

"My plan," said Commer, "was to bring in an outside attorney who had experience running these funds. Salles said he could save the local a couple of hundred thousand a year." Commer displayed canceled checks from Salles to prove he didn't get something for nothing.

What insured Coomer's downfall was the struggle over union release time. "These guys were promised by Commer that if the slate won, they would get release time," said a former Local 375 staffer of the controversial practice in which union officials receive their city salary for carrying out union work. "Commer went back on his pledge." That bitterness was expressed in Uma Kutwal's first act as president once he replaced Commer—he moved to take away Commer's release time. Mike Gimbel, political action chair, was especially angry. He had gotten only three days a week release time instead of five. And he became Roy's bitterest enemy.

mike gimbel brings rare credentials to the labor movement. He's a nationally recognized expert on baseball statistics. Moreover, in the early '90s, his large collection of reptiles, including alligators and boa constrictors, attracted widespread media and law enforcement attention. He has also been a tireless proponent of Workers' World, a Leninist sect, which oddly enough has a contract with DC 37 to work on city workfare issues.

Some Local 375 members interviewed by the Voice say it is Gimbel who is really running the opposition. "Gowda and Kutwal are just his puppets. You can actually see him give them hand signals," said Bob Parkin, a Local 375 activist who attended a tumultuous meeting on November 12 that included about 30 members. At the meeting, Kutwal and Gowda tried to explain their actions and justify using member dues to pay for their legal fees in fighting Commer. "Mostly, Gimbel stayed in the background," observed Parkin. "But he'd put his hand to his throat when he wanted Kutwal to shut up. And Kutwal would obey." Asked if he was being controlled by Gimbel, Kutwal replied, "Mike Gimbel is a fine union person who would never do anything to harm the cause of labor or the union." Gimbel refused to talk to the Voice.

Tom Dawes says it was Gimbel who was most vocal in insisting that he be fired for distributing the Times article. "But it's okay for him to distribute Workers' World," said Dawes. "He accused me of red-baiting." Actually, Dawes says he tried to update Workers' World leader Larry Holmes on the progress of CRC. But according to Dawes, Holmes didn't seem very enthusiastic about reforming DC 37. "Holmes told me Stanley Hill was funding three positions in his group Workfairness." (Holmes did not return Voice calls.)

"I also tried to get Mike involved in the reform movement," said Dawes. "But he wouldn't join the CRC. He said the workers weren't ready for reform."

Now Gimbel & Company are on top of Local 375. But without Stanley Hill backing them, they would never be running the show. In a reptilian metaphor Gimbel might appreciate, he and his triumvirate are like the birds that perch on the jaws of the alligator and feed on the food that's stuck between its teeth. Still, with Morgenthau and the national media putting pressure on AFSCME, the trio's tenure is highly precarious. After all, they shoot crocodiles, don't they?

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