Sunday, August 19, 2012

Internal Email Shines Light on Inner Workings of SEIU Local 721

SEIU's Bob Schoonover and Gilda Valdez
A reader sent Tasty an email that offers a revealing view of the inner workings of SEIU Local 721, which is currently gripped by its latest scandal.  

Earlier this year, Steve Matthews -- who at the time was Local 721’s Executive Director -- sent the email (see below) to the union’s Executive Board in response to the union's investigation of his extra-marital affair with a union staffer. In the end, Matthews was removed from his job and replaced by Gilda Valdez, who’s now at the center of the current scandal.

In the email, Matthews lays out details of a questionable multi-million-dollar real-estate deal, back-door deals with bosses, and power-grabs by union officials... among other items.

Matthews also reveals details of other officials' romantic affairs, and asks 'What about all them?' For example, here’s what Matthews says about two affairs that Local 721’s president, Bob Schoonover, allegedly had with staffers:
Bob Schoonover had a personal relationship with Gabriela Estrada, Business Office, and approved $8,000.00 in overtime for her even though she is an exempt employee. Bob also reportedly had a personal relationship with JJ Straight, former internal organizing director.
In addition to serving as the president of Local 721, Schoonover is a member of SEIU's International Executive Board.

Matthews also discusses Rosanna Mendez (Deputy Chief of Staff), who’s involved in the current scandal, and mentions various officials from the Purple Palace, including Mary Kay Henry, Eliseo Medina, Tom Woodruff, Eilen Kirlin and Leslie Frane. And he discusses SEIU-UHW, where Dave Regan is renowned for his own romantic liaisons. Speaking of SEIU-UHW, Matthews writes: "Why would we let UHW supervise our members and be abused by them?" (Sounds like Dave, right?)

Here's the email, which is so lengthy that Tasty pared it down. Also, Tasty added a few clarifying terms in brackets.
Dear Executive Board Member:

I am writing to ask you to consider what is at stake at the Local. In the last two Executive Board Meetings, much has been said about me when I have not been in the room. I have been afforded only a few minutes to respond to untrue statements by senior staff after a lifetime commitment to union members and building powerful unions with strong contracts for members, especially former 660 and current 721 members.

Instead of internal disputes, Local 721 should be focusing on preparation for LA County Bargaining. We need to add resources and effort to win the difficult contract battles in Riverside County and Santa Barbara County. We need to improve representation for our members.

Worksite organizers should not have to call the MRC [“Member Resource Center” or SEIU’s call center] as they were in some cases doing to interpret the MOU's [“Memorandums of Understanding” or collective-bargaining agreements]. These worksite organizers should receive appropriate training on contract interpretation. We need to rebuild a collective bargaining department that had been dismantled by the former staff leadership. At this time when we need to focus on the needs of the membership, the Executive Board and Senior staff have instead been devoting much of their time and attention to internal disputes.

It is important for the Executive Board to understand my history at 660 and then 721, the recent history of the "leadership team" here at 721, and what is motivating these internal issues...

Becoming Executive Director:

Early in 2011,  I was approached by a number of Executive Board members after John Tanner's contract was not renewed and then again after Raahi Rheddi was terminated by Bob Schoonover. These Executive Board members asked me to become the Executive Director of SEIU 721. Initially, I said no. I was concerned with returning to a situation where Bob Schoonover was not in favor of my return to LA.; Board members nonetheless convinced me that they would work things out with Bob. In fact, the Board members and Bob met and, even though Bob apparently was not happy with my return, they somehow convinced Bob that this would be in the best interest of our membership. Shortly after this meeting, Bob and I met at Taylor's [Steakhouse] in LA and he agreed to my becoming Executive Director (ED).

I started as ED on May 23, 2011. Since then I have worked diligently to improve all areas of union work, including representation and bargaining.  I have given new focus to the needs of Cities members by the establishment of the Cities Accountability Program. I have worked to build unity between California SEIU Locals that represent County and City workers.

Bob and me as ED:
Unfortunately, Bob never fully accepted the will of the Board to place me as Executive Director. Bob knows that I share information with you on the business of the Local and he is not happy with this fact even though this is my responsibility.

A. One such issue has been the New LA Office for 721. Soon after becoming ED, Bob and I met and he expressed some concerns to me about the appraisal for the new building. I then asked a number of questions, including who were members of the Local’s Finance Committee. Bob responded "why do I want to know"? I said "because I am the Executive Director and it is my responsibility to know and help deal with this problem.” Right away Bob wanted me to sign off that this transaction was handled appropriately. It was not handled correctly as the facts below indicate.

Fact 1. The Realtor for this transaction represented both the Seller and Buyer (us). This created a conflict of interest.

Fact 2. The Local accepted the Lease to Buy without the appraisal being done in advance. When the appraisal was later completed, the building was valued at 10.9 million dollars while the Seller’s asking price is over 21 million dollars.

Fact 3. The Local has invested up to $7 million to repair a building that we do not yet own and may decide never to purchase. (Cubicles don't increase the value of this building by 7 million dollars)

Fact 4. Bob tried to blame various people for the above but he was and still is in charge of business contracts for the Local and he is responsible for this situation.

B. Bob did not want me to have an appropriate contract from day one. Even though he promised me the same contract as Tanner, he did not mean it. You, the Board, eventually ordered Bob to meet with me to work out the contract. Bob then had Rebecca Yee write up a draft that was different than Tanner's contract (and would give himself/Bob more authority which is his real ambition to control everything concerning the decision making in 721 without checks and balances). The Executive Board in the September Board meeting dealt with the contract issue and Bob signed the contract. Yet, in the weeks after that Board meeting, Bob admittedly  met with Mary Kay Henry, Tom Woodruff, Eliseo Medina, Eileen Kirlin and Leslie Frane 

When asked why he met with all of the top officials of our International Union, Bob nervously stated that it was "about the future of the Local” and would not say anything else. However, at the Latino Caucus celebration at LA City Hall tower, a concerned Board member came to me and said that Bob had told him that "he had the green light from the International to get rid of me." It was apparent that he still wanted me gone and this was all before these current allegations. I told another Board member of what I had been told at this party. It's time to be fair. Both of these Board members know what I am saying is true.

C. Bob covets the Executive Director authority over staff. He has insisted that I let him supervise Rebecca Yee, Cathleen Garcia, Christina Rodriguez and Marc Azzudidin. Even now, he wants and is moving to change the Bylaws to give him that authority. The Bylaws that the members voted on are a check and balance with the Executive Board having true authority. I fully agree with the wisdom of these Bylaws. There is a need for caution in the face of someone who wants to take away checks and balances to give themselves more power.

Gilda Valdez:

So what is Gilda's role in all of this? Yes, I brought Gilda into 721 but she did not tell me that she had been fired from SEIU 1021. The fact is that last summer Executive Board Members told me they wanted accountability as to why only UHW friends that Gilda hired were getting supervisor positions in External and I promised I would find out. I directed Gilda to provide a written survey of all External Staff regarding their skill levels. This would first be a self-evaluation and then a review between her and me. I told her to meet with the Staff Union regarding this matter. To date I have not been able to get her to produce this work that I needed for the Executive Board. Perhaps you can get her to produce this for you and to prove that favoritism was not the motivating factor for these promotions.

You may recall that Gilda and Rosanna [Mendez] also wanted employment contracts. (Bob didn’t support this idea at first but now does, at least for Gilda). I initially raised this with you and was ordered to see what other locals have done. (No current CA local that I could find has such employment contracts). I asked Gilda why she wanted a contract and she stated "so I can protect the people I brought to 721 from UHW." This certainly shows favoritism and is not an acceptable reason. It does show where she put these relationships over the Local's interest and over her working relationship with me. Furthermore, at least (6) six members of the external staff who Gilda brought to 721 have yet to produce any successfully completed organizing campaigns. Ask staff including external staff that have been in 721 before Gilda's arrival if they have been treated fairly. Their comments will be an eye opener; if they are now not too intimidated to speak up.

Regarding the Ethics Investigation

As Michael Holland, the Ethics Investigator, has emphasized the confidentiality of the pending ethics investigation against me, I will not get into a discussion of the details.  I have been denied the opportunity to present a full and fair defense in part because I did not receive written notice of the specific allegations against me and in part because I have been denied access to my own email account and other Union records. The Executive Board should, however, know that Gilda Valdez decided to give LaShawn Howard both her initial promotion as acting lead in the clinics and her later promotion to lead in the clinics. I did sign off on the promotion as I did on most other personnel changes in the Local.  I understand that in the future I should not participate in any personnel decisions involving LaShawn, even approving recommendations by others, because of my personal relationship with her.

The Executive Board should also put in perspective the allegations against me of violations of Section 18 of the Ethics Code involving family and personal relationships. I have been told of the following:

1. Bob Schoonover had a personal relationship with Gabriela Estrada, Business Office, and  approved  $8,000.00 in overtime for her even though she is an exempt employee. Bob also reportedly had a personal relationship with JJ Straight, former internal organizing director.

2. Judy Hermosillo, External Coordinator, had a personal relationship with Gilbert Ramirez, external organizer.

3. Gilda Valdez, Chief of Staff. and Mimi Soto, LA and OC Cities Coordinator (Gilda’s God daughter and protege)

4. Rosanna Mendez, Deputy Chief of Staff, has a personal relationship with Al Chavez, Organizing Director.

Besides these people, Lorena Vellanoweth, Coordinator External, is married to Carlos Vellanoweth, External organizer.

I do not go around checking on people’s private lives so I cannot present evidence to prove these family and personal relationships among officers and employees of the Local. I also am not in a position to say that that the above is a complete list of all the family and personal relationships at the Local.

You cannot render a fair judgment on the accusations against me unless you know the overall context of whether others have been engaged in the same or similar conduct and what may be the motivations behind the complaints from others, in particular whether their actions may have racial motivations.

Three of the people who are probably my accusers are in the list above.  The Executive Board should also note that none of these other family and personal relationships involves an African American.   However, not one of these relationships have been declared to HR. I have been the only staffer to recuse myself from decisions based on possible conflict. Why is this double standard being committed against me and this local union?

The Local should be committed to the vigorous opposition to racial discrimination. Unfortunately it exists in our own organization. Linda Dent has correctly raised this issue as have members of this union. I have promoted African American staff and made adjustments to pay for African American staff who were past victims of discrimination.

In conclusion, some questions and concerns:

Why were the St Johns Clinic workers who came to speak to the Board in December threatened by their management shortly thereafter?

Who told management these workers went to the Executive Board meeting to speak to you?

What will you do about this attack on our membership?

These members have not been able to enforce their contract due to all the direct dealing that is going on behind their backs from Bob and others. Why would we let UHW supervise our members and be abused by them? Do you want to ensure proper focus on bargaining and representation? Do you believe you will be weaker or stronger in these areas with me still here as ED? Do you really believe you will have control of the board as members if you let this campaign against me succeed?

Steve Matthews