Teaching Profession

Miami Union Leader Pleads Guilty to Fraud

By Julie Blair — September 03, 2003 4 min read
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Pat L. Tornillo Jr. pleaded guilty last week to defrauding the Miami-Dade County teachers’ union he ran for more than four decades and to making false statements on his income-tax returns.

The crimes could land him in federal prison for up to five years, though a 24- month sentence is recommended in the plea agreement. Sentencing is scheduled for Nov. 7.

The union leader swindled the 14,500-member United Teachers of Dade out of $650,000 from 1998 to 2001, according to documents released by the U.S. Department of Justice on Aug. 25, the day Mr. Tornillo confessed to the crimes. He siphoned the money, the documents say, from union coffers through an elaborate credit card scheme.

Mr. Tornillo, who most recently served as president, must repay UTD’s money and more than $160,000 owed to the Internal Revenue Service for back taxes under the plea agreement, which must be approved by a judge. He was also slapped with a $25,000 fine.

Union dollars were used “for a variety of personal vacations that Tornillo took with his wife and other family members,” the Justice Department documents say. “These vacation charges included first-class airfare, stays at luxury hotels, meals, gifts, and souvenirs in Australia, New Zealand, New York City, the San Francisco area, and the Caribbean island of St. Barthelemy, among other destinations.”

“This is a terribly sad day,” the 78-year-old former social studies teacher was quoted in The Miami Herald as saying. He said he hoped his crimes would not overshadow the good work he had done. “I ask for forgiveness even though I have not yet forgiven myself,” he said.

His lawyer declined further comment.

Educators in the 365,000-student Miami-Dade County district said they were outraged by the admissions. “Damn it, people are angry, and it will take a long time to get over this,” said Joseph F. Zawodny, a union steward for 15 years and a chemistry teacher at Maritime and Science Technology High School in Miami. “It is hard to believe a man could achieve so much and then do such stupid things.”

‘Small Sense of Justice’

Mr. Tornillo proved a master of deception for years, the Justice Department said.

The former leader used corporate credit cards for supposed union business without reimbursing UTD and asked the union to repay him for personal expenses placed on his personal credit cards, documents say.

Furthermore, he 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. Other times, according to the Justice Department, he received checks up to $15,000.

Under the plea agreement, the federal government cannot prosecute Mr. Tornillo for other UTD-related misdeeds.

“This plea is a small sense of justice for the teachers, but in no way could it ever address the wrongs that were done and the violation of trust that was committed,” said Mark Richard, who was assigned by the American Federation of Teachers to help clean up the local union.

UTD leaders requested their parent organizations’ aid in May, following a raid by federal and local authorities. The local is also affiliated with the National Education Association.

A 10-point recovery plan was put in place in June and has already boosted confidence in the union, according to Mr. Richard. (“New Union Administrator Cuts Jobs, Salaries,” June 18, 2003.) More than 450 new teachers have signed up in the past few weeks, he said. “It is an indication that [teachers] want a union, but they’d like an honest one.”

Other Concerns

Among some union members, there is concern that the problems may go deeper still.

Mr. Zawodny and some of his colleagues wonder, for example, whether Arthur Barnes, a senior vice president of the Health Insurance Plan of Greater New York and the husband of AFT President Sandra Feldman, was involved in influencing Mr. Tornillo’s vote on a Miami- Dade committee convened to recommend an insurance plan to the district in the late 1990s.

According to The Miami Herald, Mr. Tornillo pushed the school board, which had the ultimate say on the contract, to approve the $195 million deal. He allegedly received a $900,000 kickback for doing so, the newspaper said.

Prior to the vote, Mr. Tornillo and his wife vacationed on an African safari with Mr. Barnes and Ms. Feldman, members of the local union point out.

Federal and local authorities opened a case based on a tip about the alleged kickback and planned to revisit it prior to reaching the plea agreement, the newspaper reported. Those plans have now been curtailed, it said.

Alex Wohl, a spokesman for the AFT, discounted the notion that Mr. Barnes was involved in wrongdoing associated with the contract. The two couples were traveling with many others on a trip prior to a union meeting held in Africa, he said. Moreover, Mr. Wohl said, Mr. Barnes’ job is not to secure contracts but to work with the company’s philanthropic activities.

Such assurances do little to satisfy Mr. Zawodny. “I was born at night,” the union steward said, “but not last night.”

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