Union paid private bills for Tornillo

05/11/2003 6:05 PM

09/08/2014 5:33 PM

Murray Sisselman, 73 and dying of cancer, walked into the Rascal House deli near his home on Feb. 25 to meet with James Angleton Jr., the chief financial officer of United Teachers of Dade. Sisselman, who served as UTD president for 27 years, wanted to come clean in his final days. He directed Angleton to a file cabinet packed with records showing that longtime union chief Pat Tornillo and his wife were apparently reimbursed for at least $155,000 in personal expenses in less than three years, including:

* More than $10,200 during the couple's short stay in St. Bart's and other Caribbean islands, covering airfare, meals, hotels, jewelry, French fragrances, cosmetics and swimwear. * A five-night stay at The Pierre Hotel in New York City that cost the union $8,671.98. * A $1,400 spa visit at the Silverado Resort in Napa Valley, Calif. * A $4,158 shopping spree at Silvio Bresciani clothing in New York. * $1,525 in merchandise from Wayside Antiques in Reddick, Fla. The Herald reviewed 13 months of charges made between 2000 and 2003. They were incurred on two union credit cards and three of Tornillo's personal cards. The bills for all five accounts were submitted to the UTD for payment. Tornillo, 77, declined to comment Friday evening. "I'm not going to talk to you, " he said. The discovery could signal the end of Tornillo's four-decade reign over the Southeast's largest labor union, which represents 27,895 teachers and support-staff members. Many of the expenses, UTD financial records show, came when teachers were fighting for raises, facing pay cuts or trying to avoid layoffs. On Monday, Angleton will go public as the insider who began working with federal prosecutors to build a case, when his lawyer delivers papers to the UTD seeking to protect his job under Florida's whistle blower law. "I found expenditures submitted by the president and reimbursed by the union that did not appear to be consistent with union or school business, " Angleton told The Herald. Angleton said the union paid for the Tornillos' home phone bills, power bills, home insurance, grocery bills, Christmas gifts, liquor and more. CLOTHING CHARGES Pat Tornillo charged $1,032 at Robert Talbott, an upscale men's clothier in Carmel, Calif. He charged $646 at Bonz, a New Zealand retailer known for its pure wool sweaters. He charged $1,546.02 at Harry and David, a mail-order supplier of fine fruits and gift baskets. He charged $2,151.30 for a one-night stay at the Mandarin Oriental in San Francisco. With each dollar charged to his personal cards, Tornillo collected frequent-flier miles on American and Delta airlines. Angleton said the union should not have been paying any of Tornillo's expenses - personal or business - because the union boss already received $40,000 a year to cover such costs, no receipts required. "When you read everything that is going on and you see certain things, you just can't stomach it, " said Angleton, who turned records over to federal prosecutors. "I was very concerned for the teachers and the members of the union, and I just didn't see anyone inside I could go to for policing what I saw." For years, some union members have criticized Tornillo for running the union like his fiefdom, building up the UTD senior staff and executive board with allies. But the break came from two unlikely sources: Sisselman, who fought side by side with Tornillo to strengthen the teachers union for more than 40 years, and Angleton, whom Tornillo hired 16 months ago to be the union's chief financial officer. Angleton, 46, previously worked for TotalBank as a senior real-estate lending officer. Almost from the start, Angleton said, he noticed that Tornillo submitted credit-card statements that appeared to contain personal charges. Those invoices were paid, no questions asked, he said. "There appeared to be no apparent business purpose to them, " Angleton said. "There were no internal controls, no checks and balances." Angleton said he continued with his own end of the business, mainly dealing with lenders. He didn't have the authority to sign checks or approve expenses. THE MEETING Then, in February, Sisselman asked Angleton to meet him at the Rascal House in Sunny Isles Beach. "I'm dealing with my mortality, " Angleton recalled Sisselman telling him. "He worried about all the loss of membership, how would UTD financially sustain its new building and the continued loss of income, " Angleton said. At their meeting, Sisselman leaned forward and said: "Look at Pat's personal expenditures and his credit-card use. Go into the comptroller's room. Go to his expenses. And downrange, I'll tell you to look at other things." DIGGING INTO RECORDS If there were other secrets, Sisselman took them to his grave. He died March 11, but the tip prompted Angleton to dig into the records. What he saw astounded him. Angleton learned that Shirley Johnson, the UTD's secretary treasurer, had co-signed checks with Tornillo to pay off credit-card charges incurred by Tornillo. UTD bylaws mandate that two union officers sign checks. Some checks totaled more than $10,000. "Shirley is so wonderful, so caring, " Angleton said. "I was surprised." Angleton said he asked Johnson, "How can you do this?" "Sometimes she would just stare and shake her head, " he said. "Other times she would not say anything." Johnson's attorney, H.T. Smith, said she could not comment during an on-going investigation but had done nothing wrong and plans to cooperate with authorities. "Dr. Shirley Johnson has not knowingly participated in any illegal or improper conduct, " he said. "We are confident that when the dust settles, [she] will be fully vindicated." UTD spokeswoman Annette Katz said other union executives also would not comment on the expenses. Sensing that no one in the union shared his concerns, Angleton retained Roberto Martinez, the former U.S. attorney for South Florida, and Susan Tarbe, a former federal prosecutor who had supervised the economic crimes unit. HIRE LAWYERS His goal, he said, was to hire the lawyers to oversee the union, although legally he did not have that authority. He brought copies of financial records to their Coral Gables office. The former prosecutors took one look and decided that the records needed to be turned over to the U.S. attorney's office in Miami. "Jim's main concern was for the welfare of the teachers and other union members, " Tarbe said. "So he had an obligation to turn over the records to authorities and is fully cooperating with them." Angleton was born and raised in Miami, part of a long-established Greek community here. He said he lost sleep over the decision to turn on Tornillo, but said it needed to be done. "It was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life, " he said. "I've been at the UTD for 16 months. I have an aunt who is a teacher. I grew up in this community, and when you read about all the corruption that's going on, you have to do the right thing." SEARCH WARRANT Exactly two months after Sisselman's tip, FBI Special Agent Robert Cymbaluk delivered a search warrant to UTD headquarters. Agents scooped up records from the comptroller's office, along with Tornillo's appointment calendar, his expense reports, reimbursement forms, bills, receipts and credit-card statements - and union payment records. Angleton said he tried to remain calm during the raid, but knew that insiders suspected that he helped bring the government's wrath upon the union. Now he fears that the union may try to fire him for blowing the whistle. His lawyer said Florida law protects him against any retaliation. "I have a sincere interest in remaining with the union and going forward to help clean it up and bring back the vitality it once had and the trust it once had with teachers and the community, " Angleton said.

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