Teaching Profession

Disgraced Union Leader Pat Tornillo Dies

By Vaishali Honawar — June 27, 2007 2 min read
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Pat L. Tornillo Jr., the once-influential and reform-minded former president of the United Teachers of Dade who went to prison for swindling millions of dollars from the union, died June 24 at his home in Tallahassee, Fla.

Mr. Tornillo, 81, was suffering from lung and heart disease, prostate cancer, and diabetes, and had been in hospice care.

During the 40 years that he led the UTD, Mr. Tornillo came to be known as one of the nation’s most progressive teachers’ union leaders and was nicknamed the grandfather of the “new unionism” movement. Under him, the UTD was one of the founding members of the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, a national group of local teacher leaders. Among other issues he championed, he led his local union in partnering with the Miami-Dade County school district for more school choice and lobbied the state to reduce class sizes.

BRIC ARCHIVE

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford remembered the “significant impact” Mr. Tornillo made in the integration of black and white teachers’ unions in the state, as well as in bringing together the FEA in 2000 after it had split into two separate organizations in 1974.

“While always a controversial figure on the Florida education and political landscapes, it was his courage and conviction that raised the status of the teaching profession in Florida,” Mr. Ford said in a statement.

Scandal-Scarred Leadership

But in 2003, an investigation of UTD finances by local and federal law-enforcement authorities cast a dark cloud over Mr. Tornillo’s achievements. A report paid for by the American Federation of Teachers went on to allege that he and other top local leaders had embezzled as much as $3.35 million from the union’s coffers. United Teachers of Dade is an affiliate of both the AFT and the National Education Association.

Documents released by the U.S. Department of Justice showed Mr. Tornillo used corporate credit cards for personal expenses and requested that checks be written from one of the organization’s education funds to cover his personal credit cards and for the rental of Caribbean vacation homes. At other times, he received checks for up to $15,000. (“Miami Union Leader Pleads Guilty to Fraud,” Sept. 3, 2003.)

Mr. Tornillo agreed to a plea bargain and was sentenced to 27 months’ imprisonment. He and his wife, Donna, who was not charged, also agreed to transfer their life-insurance policies to the union.

On his release in 2005 after serving 22 months, he published an apology in The Miami Herald. “I write to apologize with the deepest sense of humility to the teachers and children of Miami-Dade County … to the United Teachers of Dade … to the union members who believed in me and stood with me through demonstrations and rallies and civil disobedience as we fought for collective bargaining and teacher rights,” he wrote.

But the effects of Mr. Tornillo’s actions were to linger.

The UTD lost hundreds of members in the years immediately after the scandal and struggled to recover financially.

“Pat Tornillo’s death marks the end of a life once dedicated to education reform and teacher leadership in Florida, but unfortunately was compromised at the end of his career by his admission of fraud and tax evasion,” Karen Aronowitz, the current president of the Miami-Dade union, in a statement.

She added: “Pat’s mistakes and the resulting hardships UTD endured reinforced what we already knew: A union and this union in particular, is bigger than any one member or elected officer.”

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