The Big Fix

Corruption In DC 37, Part Two: How the Union's Bosses Rule By Fraud and Intimidation

The Saunders administration uses the same reasoning in the case of the Local 983 vote fraud. "If Rosenthal is president now," argues Policano, "why should there be investigation of what happened in 1995?" Rosenthal's answer is that staffers still on the payroll in '99 participated in the '95 vote fraud. "Where did the blank ballots come from? They didn't print themselves," says Rosenthal. "Why doesn't the union investigate? Because they're afraid the staffers will give up the big shots on the fifth floor who gave the orders to fix my election." (Policano replies that if Rosenthal has problems with the '95 election, "we invite him to go to the D.A.")

Saunders has publicly promised to allow outside observers to count the votes in future citywide contract-ratification elections. But just this April, he ignored the pleas of candidates who begged him for outside observers in the Housing Authority Local 957 election. That contest allegedly featured physical intimidation and verbal threats by incumbent officers against challengers, as well as mailbox violations and suspect vote totals. Still, Saunders told the petitioners he had to respect the local leaders' autonomy. "The issues you have raised," he wrote in a letter dated April 19, "appear to relate to matters that are internal within Local 957."

Saunders stepped out of the room only minutes before the apparent suppression of members' voting rights. On July 15, the 26,000 members of the school employees' union— which leads DC 37 both in indictments (six) and missing funds ($3 million)— were supposed to choose delegates to the August 18 convention held to elect AFSCME vice presidents. But the members never got a chance to vote.

illustration: David Hollenback

Newly elected Local 372 president Veronica Montgomery-Costa stepped to the microphone on the night of July 15 and announced that she and her five-person executive board would automatically become delegates. Then she proclaimed that the remaining delegates would be not be selected by a vote, but simply appointed in the order in which they were nominated. "I can't believe she didn't orchestrate the nominations so that her loyalists got nominated first," observes one DC 37 president.

"If that's what happened, it's a violation of federal law," says Carl Biers, executive director of the Association for Union Democracy, an activist labor group. "You can't take away the members' right to vote. Because it took place in such a large local, the violation invalidates the entire AFSCME vice president vote. The whole election will have to be run over."

Montgomery-Costa did not return phone calls from the Voice. But Santos Crespo, executive vice president of Local 372, defends the process. "Who is making these objections?" he demands to know. "I'll bet you didn't get a call from a member. The membership approved the nominations," he explains.

What Crespo means is that the members voted democratically not to vote. But the AFSCME constitution specifically states that if there is more than one nominee per office, "the election shall be by secret ballot."

Says Arthur Schwartz, who's handled hundreds of candidate protests going back to the 1970s, "In all my experience, I've never seen a union in the entire AFL-CIO where the election process is so consistently crooked as in DC 37. Generally, when my union clients tell me that they think the ballots have been stolen or tampered with, I tell them to calm down, this rarely happens. But in DC 37 it happens all the time."

Even for DC 37, though, the election last April in Housing Authority Clerical Local 957 was a horror show. The results were overturned on appeal. But the contest between Walthene Primus, the president, and Robyn Little, a leading reformer, illustrates how fraud and intimidation remain the pillars of DC 37's power structure.

Here were the steps in the process: first, Primus refused to allow Little's supporters to be present when the ballots were addressed, stuffed, and mailed. Then, according to Little, the members were told to send their ballots to a private mailbox instead of the U.S. Post Office. Next, Primus's team, not the election committee, had a key to the box.

When it finally came time to open the box and count the ballots, the election committee produced a double tally: on June 11 it declared a total of 480 ballots had been received, of which 349 were valid. By June 14, according to Little, it insisted the number had swelled to 623 ballots, of which 492 were valid. You don't have to be a sore loser to be curious where the extra 143 ballots had come from.

"Whatever happened," says Policano, "it was just honest error. The process didn't fail." Indeed, it didn't, but only because Little appealed to an AFSCME judicial panel, which ordered a new election. "I think cc'ing the D.A. helped us with AFSCME," she observes. Says her attorney, Arthur Schwartz, "AFSCME didn't have a choice. We were ready to go to a federal court."

While vote fraud has been common in DC 37, intimidation may be the preferred method of handling elections, if only because it's more efficient. So one of the first phone calls Little says she got in response to a leaflet kicking off her campaign last November was from Deborah Jennings, the union's secretary. "Who do you think you are?" Little says Jennings told her. "You better back off if you know what's good for you!"

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