Teaching Profession

Report Charges Leaders Took $3.35 Million From Fla. Union

By Julie Blair — September 17, 2003 4 min read
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Top brass at United Teachers of Dade stole at least $3.35 million from their constituents over the past six years, in part through business ventures set up to pilfer union coffers, a forensic examination charges.

The report, paid for by the American Federation of Teachers and completed by Lewis B. Freeman & Partners Inc., in Miami, details how and when money was moved and to whom it was given. It specifically accuses longtime UTD leader Pat L. Tornillo Jr.; former President Murray Sisselman, who is now deceased; and Elizabeth Du Fresne, who previously served as UTD’s general counsel. It also takes aim at Shirley Johnson, the union’s interim president, among others.

The report warns, too, that there may be more to come.

Investigators said they did not have enough time to review all documents and conduct some interviews, and they noted that access was limited by federal authorities who are conducting ongoing criminal investigations. Moreover, Freeman & Partners, a forensic-accounting and consulting company, searched for problems dating back only six years, from April 1997 to April 2003.

“The findings warrant a more intensive investigation in order to quantify the full extent of the fraud(s) or other improprieties that have adversely impacted the [14,500-member] UTD,” says the report, dated Sept. 3 and now available at www.utofd.com.

The union, whose members work for the 365,000-student Miami-Dade County school district, immediately sent letters to those named demanding repayment, and its leaders have vowed to take legal action, said Mark Richard, an AFT administrator deployed to UTD headquarters, to right the ship. “This is,” he asserted, “the ultimate betrayal.”

Mr. Tornillo’s lawyer did not provide comment for this story. His client, however, pleaded guilty in late August to defrauding the union and to making false statements on income-tax returns. (“Miami Union Leader Pleads Guilty to Fraud,” Sept. 3, 2003.)

Ms. Du Fresne and Ms. Johnson maintain they are innocent.

Variety of Schemes Alleged

The report outlines nine distinct paths that allegedly were used to funnel money improperly.

More than $2.1 million was filtered into the pockets of Mr. Tornillo, Mr. Sisselman, and Ms. Du Fresne through the World Wide Learning Corp. and the Nova Educational Fund, the document alleges. The then-colleagues set up those enterprises under the guise of helping to facilitate master’s and Ph.D. programs for teachers belonging to UTD and the Florida Education Association, its state parent, the document says.

The Cincinnati-based Union Institute and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., provided the professional development and in turn paid UTD for marketing the services to union members. World Wide Learning, which investigators say was formed by the union leaders, also got a cut, as it acted as a middleman between the parties. The segregated account acted as a pot for money paid from the college. Neither the Union Institute nor Nova Southeastern University has been accused of wrongdoing, AFT officials said.

Only a small percentage of the money was returned to UTD, according to the forensic exam. Much of it went to purchase vacations to Alaska, China, New Zealand, and Russia, among other destinations.

Ms. Du Fresne, however, contends that the World Wide Learning deal was aboveboard and that money owed to UTD was paid.

“I knew nothing of a [Nova] slush fund,” she added.

The report also charges that Mr. Tornillo and his wife used four UTD staff members to clean and repair their personal residence, while a fifth employee served as a personal assistant to Mrs. Tornillo. The price tag: at least $400,000, according to the report.

The report says Mr. Tornillo further dipped into union accounts to garner nearly $50,000 in travel advances he never repaid. He also spent more than $677,000 on union credit cards for personal goods and services, the report says.

‘Didn’t Steal a Penny’

Mr. Tornillo and Mr. Sisselman tried to ensure that they and a select group of staff members were taken care of in retirement, according to the auditors. A $1 million “transition fund” was set up, the report says, but used instead to help pay for construction of a new headquarters. The fund neither appeared in the UTD budget nor was approved by the UTD executive board, the report says.

Ms. Du Fresne said she believed the retirement money was legitimate. The lawyer said she sees herself as a victim who has been betrayed by trusted friends.

“I didn’t steal a ... penny,” she said last week, adding that she believes she did a “superb job” as general counsel.

Just before an FBI raid on union headquarters on April 29 of this year, 16 staff members were given checks for “unused sick/vacation” time. Recipients included Ms. Johnson, who was paid $6,750.

“I still believe I should be paid for my vacation,” Ms. Johnson said, fighting back tears during a telephone interview last week. “I didn’t steal a dime.” She said she sent a letter to the AFT explaining why she was owed the money.

In addition, two employees remained on the payroll after they had been terminated, and others were provided health coverage even though they did not pay for the benefits, the investigators found.

Many Miami-Dade teachers have said they are outraged by the revelations, but comforted that the facts are coming to light. Many note that they believe deeply in unionism, while acknowledging that trust in the local must be regained slowly.

“There is a sentiment among teachers that the AFT must be shielding people in UTD, since so much went on for so long without any other repercussion than busting Mr. Tornillo,” Shawn Beightol, a former union steward who quit the organization last year after deciding some actions were questionable, said in an e-mail.

AFT spokesmen said the national union has done nothing wrong.

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