Not long ago, Tyrone Freeman was a rising star in the national labor movement, already the head of California’s biggest union local and a force in Democratic politics from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
Freeman’s quick climb up the ranks of the powerful Service Employees International Union burnished his reputation as an advocate for the disadvantaged, a man who helped improve the lot of some 190,000 workers paid about $9 an hour to care for the infirm.
On Tuesday, though, Freeman was indicted on federal charges of stealing from those workers to enrich himself — even billing the union for costs from his Hawaiian wedding. The 15-count indictment, which also contains allegations that he violated tax laws and gave false information to a mortgage lender, carries combined maximum prison sentences of more than 200 years.
The charges resulted from a nearly four-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor, FBI and Internal Revenue Service that grew out of a series of Times reports on Freeman’s financial dealings as president of SEIU Local 6434. The ensuing scandal cost Freeman his job and spread through the SEIU, leading to the ouster of several other California officials as well as the president of the union’s biggest Michigan local.
Citing records and interviews, The Times reported that Freeman funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars of his union members’ hard-earned dues, and money from a related charity, to his relatives. He also spent lavish sums on a Four Seasons Resort golf tournament, expensive restaurants and a Beverly Hills cigar club.
Last month, his wife, Pilar Planells, pleaded guilty to an income tax charge in connection with more than $540,000 she received in consulting payments from the union. She is expected to be sentenced to three years’ probation and must pay about $130,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties, according to court records.
At the time, Freeman’s total compensation was about $200,000, making him one of the higher-paid union leaders in the nation. He is charged with three tax counts for allegedly failing to report about $100,000 in income from 2006 through 2008.
Still pending in state court is a civil lawsuit the union filed against Freeman and Planells over more than $1.1 million they allegedly pilfered. The suit contends that the money financed Freeman’s lifestyle of $175 glasses of cognac, $250 bottles of wine and a $3,400 trip to the NFL Pro Bowl.
Before the scandal broke, Freeman had the ear of mayors and Congress members, in no small part because of the election dollars and campaign foot soldiers his union could muster.
Freeman also represented 30,000 workers as president of the California United Homecare Workers.