Union paid for chief's opulent lifestyle

05/18/2003 6:29 PM

03/05/2008 6:32 PM

On the morning of Nov. 19, 2002, United Teachers of Dade President Pat Tornillo excoriated school leaders over low teacher salaries and demanded "a hunt for spare dollars that could go toward raises." But Tornillo himself wasn't so frugal. That night, he spent teachers union dues to stay in a $2,000-a-night suite at the Mandarin Oriental hotel at Brickell Key. Tornillo slept eight nights at the opulent hotel and charged it to a UTD credit card.

Total cost: $20,138.53. "I went ballistic when I saw that Mandarin bill, " said David J. Albaum, the union's in-house financial consultant, who reviewed the UTD's credit-card statements. "A $2,000 room for a nonprofit union? Come on." Tornillo's spending is at the center of a federal grand jury investigation to determine whether the longtime union boss spent teachers' dues on personal luxuries. Tornillo referred calls Friday to his attorney, Robert Josefsberg, who did not return three calls seeking comment. The Herald obtained 21 months' worth of the UTD chief's credit-card statements, union checks and financial records that show the union paid credit-card charges totaling at least $350,000 between September 2000 and this March, with little or no scrutiny. Among the charges: The Sinclair Intimacy Institute - whose motto is "Better Relationships, Better Sex" - Bed Bath & Beyond, Target, ABC Liquor, Sharper Image, even the historic Ahwahnee hotel in Yosemite National Park in California. From the Neiman Marcus catalog, the 77-year-old Tornillo bought a pair of python-print pajamas ($175.73) and a matching robe ($149.10). Pat and Donna Tornillo globe-hopped, often first class, through Australia, New Zealand, Europe and the Far East. Pat Tornillo charged $1,441 worth of tailored suits in Hong Kong and $978.26 in souvenirs in Thailand. Donna Tornillo, 56, charged $1,800 worth of designer clothing in one day in New York. The couple charged almost $4,000 at a jewelry store in Carmel, Calif. Teachers' dues paid for it all, which Albaum said left the union so cash-strapped that it had to take out loans just to get by. "We paid all his bills, " said Albaum, who reviewed outgoing payments, but admitted that he never confronted Tornillo. "We paid Southern Bell, the cable company, FPL. He didn't try to hide anything." FIGHTING FOR SALARIES Many of the expenditures, UTD records show, came at a time when teachers were fighting for raises, facing pay cuts or trying to avoid layoffs. Last November, Tornillo sat across from Miami-Dade County Schools Superintendent Merrett Stierheim and demanded pay raises for teachers and protection from layoffs for teachers' aides. He insisted that new salaries be retroactive, warning that he would negotiate "until hell freezes over." "No longer are we willing to accept that you don't have money, " Tornillo told the school district's negotiating team. Later, Tornillo retreated to the Biscayne Bay Suite at the Mandarin, costing $2,000 a night. High over the bay, the 960-square-foot unit features bamboo floors, a marble open shower, a deep-soaking tub and floor-to-ceiling windows, offering guests an unparalleled view of Miami. That night, Tornillo charged $84 worth of beverages from the in-room bar. During his eight-day stay, Tornillo regularly ordered room service, used the bar, had clothes laundered, and lounged in the spa. He checked out on Nov. 23, charging it to a UTD American Express card. His rental apartment is just 300 yards away. Albaum said Tornillo caught so much grief over the Mandarin bill that he wrote the union a personal check to cover the charges. Albaum said that several weeks later, UTD bookkeeper Judy Bowling issued Tornillo a check to pay him back. "I saw the check, " Albaum said. "It was for the same amount of the Mandarin charge. He turned around and had Judy B. reimburse it." Bowling declined repeated requests for comment. The Mandarin charge, records show, was not the only indulgence. On Sept. 24, 2000, Pat and Donna Tornillo jetted to San Francisco, then to Australia, New Zealand and back to California. They visited the world-renowned aquarium in Sydney and bought $332 in women's clothing the next day. In the New Zealand mountain resort of Queenstown, they charged $852 at the Bonz Gallery and $487 at the Queenstown Gallery of fine art. In California, they landed in San Francisco and drove to Carmel, where they strolled among the town's famous cypresses and spent $1,310.94 on Christmas collectibles at Kris Kringle and $3,900 for a necklace and gold ring at Concepts Jewelry. Their next stop down the Pacific Coast Highway was the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur. The cost on his corporate credit card: $4,279.87 for a few nights' stay. The Tornillos drove back to San Francisco to end their vacation at the Bay Area's Mandarin Oriental, where they racked up a $7,306.24 bill. The three-week vacation cost at least $49,715 - equivalent to the annual salary of a schoolteacher with 15 years of experience and a master's degree. In terms of the union, it cost the annual dues of 59 teachers. The following year, the Tornillos jetted off to Switzerland, India, Thailand and Cambodia for a two-week vacation that cost at least $27,000, union records show. In its review of union checks for that trip, The Herald could not confirm that every expense was covered by the union, although much of it was placed on corporate credit cards. Overall for this report, The Herald reviewed about $444,000 in credit-card expenses, with $350,000 in corresponding checks. Albaum said the union paid all of the expenses. He said Tornillo simply turned in his monthly statements to Bowling to be paid. Albaum acknowledged that he approved many of the checks. He never confronted Tornillo and never told the executive board during its monthly meetings. His explanation: "Tornillo demeaned people. He'd tell them, 'Get outta here.' " Albaum said the board never questioned Tornillo either. In one financial report prepared for the board, Tornillo's spending is listed under a line item, "Community Affairs and Organizational Relations." Albaum said he showed the charges to UTD Secretary-Treasurer Shirley Johnson, who expressed concern. "I thought it was her job to do, " he said. "She said she would talk to Pat and even went to lunch with Mrs. Tornillo on Jan. 28 to talk about the spending." On Jan. 17, Johnson sent an angry e-mail to Tornillo, claiming that her signature was being stamped on checks that she had never seen or approved. All union checks required both Johnson's and Tornillo's signatures. Johnson wrote that she had met with Albaum, Bowling and James Angleton Jr., the UTD's chief financial officer, about "using our signature stamps and stamping both of our names on checks we never see or sign." "I sent an e-mail eight months ago about this and was very disturbed to find out that my e-mail was ignored and this is still going on, " she wrote. Neither Johnson nor her attorney, H.T. Smith, would comment for this report. Albaum recalled the meeting and said Bowling was the one who used the stamps. Albaum joined the UTD 18 months ago at the request of Angleton, his friend for 15 years. Angleton - who knew that the union was hemorrhaging money - says he was tipped off to the questionable billing on Feb. 25 by Tornillo's longtime colleague Murray Sisselman, the former union president who died of cancer several weeks later. Albaum and Angleton have become government witnesses in the probe of Tornillo. MOTIVES QUESTIONED Union officials and their attorneys question the pair's motives in going to the FBI, which led to the investigation. They say Angleton, as the chief financial officer, was in a prime position to know about the union's spending - and do something about it - long before his meeting with Sisselman. None of the officials or attorneys would be quoted for this report. On Sunday, The Herald reported that Angleton turned over to authorities records showing that Tornillo and his wife charged at least $155,000 for personal items, including antiques, a St. Bart's vacation, California spa visits, custom clothing, even groceries. Tornillo earns $243,000 a year in salary and benefits. That includes a $42,700 stipend that is supposed to cover his business expenses, Angleton said. UTD spokeswoman Annette Katz declined to say whether Tornillo has a contract that covers his personal expenditures. She also refused to provide a list of union-related trips that Tornillo took. On April 29, FBI agents raided UTD headquarters and hauled off all the credit-card statements, expense reports, Tornillo's appointment calendar and more. Tornillo then took a leave of absence. Three days after the raid, Albaum said, Tornillo returned to UTD headquarters with a stack of personal expenses. "Tornillo wanted us to pay the phone bill, " Albaum said.

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