In My Opinion

Unchecked power let union bosses betray teachers

Before Pat Tornillo was a crook, he was a union hero. He built the old Dade Classroom Teachers Association into the negotiating force that became United Teachers of Dade. He was a leader of the 1968 statewide teacher strike that brought an end to Florida’s notion of the submissive schoolmarm.

But after 40 years as the union’s president, it was as if Tornillo had become the living embodiment of the UTD. He thought so, anyway. Certainly, he had considerable difficulty discerning between the union’s money and his own.

Maybe all that power for all those years lent him some outsized sense of entitlement. Union officials later calculated that during his last few years as union president, Tornillo looted some $3.5 million from the UTD treasury, using union money and union credit cards to pay for exotic vacations, tailored suits, jewelry, his wife’s personal servant, for all manner of pricey stuff unrelated to his job. But terms of the contract the union board had given the all-powerful president were so loose and oversight so lax that federal prosecutors could prove only that $650,000 of Tornillo’s mad spending spree was actual theft.

U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan said the union board had allowed Tornillo to run the union local as his “personal fiefdom.”

Merrett Stierheim, who served as Miami-Dade schools superintendent from 2001-04, told The Herald that the once vaunted Tornillo had become “a modern-day tragedy…. I think he was a victim of Lord Acton’s rule: Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…. He was unchecked. He didn’t have the safeguards.”

Unchecked power. The lack of safeguards. An obsequious board that allowed the president to run union headquarters as his personal fiefdom. A decade later, that same formula would lead another South Florida teachers union into a tragedy of the Lord Acton kind.

After Tornillo was carted off to federal prison, the UTD found itself in such financial peril that it was forced to sell its grand seven-story headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard. But the damage that another free-spending President Pat caused the Broward Teachers Union may be even more profound.

Former BTU President Pat Santeramo was arrested last week and charged with running an utterly banal kickback scheme. The Broward State Attorney’s office claimed that a contractor had submitted at least 20 inflated work invoices to the BTU, then delivered surreptitious payments back to the union president. Investigators counted $165,500 in kickbacks.

Investigators say that after Santeramo resigned last fall, he doubled-down on his criminal trespasses, using a forged document to steal another $122,000 from the union for undeserved sick leave and unused vacation pay. (He also faces charges involving illegal campaign contributions and the misuse of union credit cards.)

Santeramo’s alleged sins hardly compare with the sums Tornillo’s stole and misspent on his UTD spending sprees (although, under Santeramo, BTU did manage to fritter away most of the union’s $3.8 million reserve fund.). If prosecutors are right, Santeramo’s crimes during his 10-year reign amounted to less money. But they may be more costly.

It’s a matter of timing. The Santeramo scandal sabotaged the BTU’s credibility, clout and morale in a period of particular disquiet for public school teachers and especially for teacher unions. The governor and the Legislature, after decimating school district budgets, have undone teacher tenure, tossed out seniority and tied teacher salaries to a nebulous merit-pay system. But amid all this turmoil, the state’s second-largest teachers union, with 11,500 members, has been preoccupied with devastating internal problems — the Lord Acton kind.

After Santeramo resigned, The Herald’s Laura Figueroa reconstructed the undoing of one of the state’s most powerful union bosses. She found that BTU elections had been structured in a way that kept the board packed with Santeramo’s unquestioning supporters, shutting out critics and reformers. “You have a situation where you set up presidents for life,” Figueroa was told by longtime Broward teacher and coach Phil Van Pelt, a member of a losing slate of union board candidates.

The BTU union had become yet another personal fiefdom.

The union hired Kendall Coffey, a former U.S. attorney, to sort out through the wreckage. Coffey suggested that the sort of character failings exhibited by Tornillo (who died in 2007, after serving 18 months in federal prison) and perhaps Santeramo too, if he’s convicted, are not limited to union bosses. He talked of CEOs who as they “gain in stature and power, lose sight of the fact that their power is borrowed from the organization.” He talked about how a successful boss can come to think that what’s best for him is best for the company. He told me, “I don’t think this is just a union dynamic.”

Except when a union boss steals money and prestige and power from a constituency of underpaid, demoralized and politically harassed school teachers, the sin seems somehow more odious than the corporate variety.

I wonder too whether South Florida’s atmosphere of ostentatious wealth has contributed to this flurry of ethical lapses and corruption scandals among local political and union leaders. Tornillo was earning $264,000 a year. Santeramo, $189,000. Both far more than their school teacher constituents. Yet in the land of waterfront mansions and super yachts and Italian sports cars, maybe union powerbrokers and elected officials can come to feel underpaid and underappreciated by their minions, deserving of a lifestyle comparable to the big money boys scarfing up the best seats in the finest restaurants.

“Down here, among all this spectacular wealth, you can be a person of very decent means and still be the last person the valet brings his car,” Coffey said. One could almost see how some powerful union or political leaders, confronted with temptation, could talk himself into it, he said.

Of course, the corruption formula still requires those other elements: Unchecked power. An absence of safeguards. A lack of oversight. And the utter disregard for those embattled school teachers, their union dues, their trust and their needs in a treacherous season.

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