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.