SEIU

Tyrone Freeman stole from his union’s low-income members to pay for a lavish lifestyle. Deciding on his sentence was difficult, the judge says.

By Paul Pringle
October 7, 2013, 9:43 p.m.

The former president of California’s biggest union local was sentenced Monday to 33 months in federal prison for stealing from his low-income members to finance an expensive lifestyle that included being married to two women at the same time.

Declaring that Tyrone Freeman betrayed the “sacred trust” of the workers he represented, U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins also ordered him pay to about $150,000 in restitution and barred him from holding office in any union for 13 years after he is released from prison.

“He lost sight of his mission,” Collins said of Freeman, once a rising star in the national labor movement who headed a Los Angeles-based local of the powerful Service Employees International Union.

Before Collins imposed the sentence, Freeman stood before the judge and cried as he asked for leniency, acknowledging that his “bad decisions” hurt the workers and his family.

“May God have mercy on me,” said Freeman, 44, wearing a dark business suit. “I am accountable for these bad decisions.”

The case grew out of a series of Times reports on Freeman’s financial practices as president of SEIU Local 6434. Beginning in 2008, the stories focused on his actions to direct tens of thousands of dollars from the union and a related nonprofit to relatives and friends, in addition to his lavish spending on a Four Seasons Resort golf tournament, restaurants and a Beverly Hills cigar club.

The resulting scandal quickly cost Freeman his job and rippled through the SEIU, leading to the ouster of several other union officials.

Last year, his wife, Pilar Planells, pleaded guilty to an income tax charge in connection with more than $540,000 she had received in consulting payments from the union while Freeman was president. To avoid prison, she agreed to pay about $130,000 in back taxes, interest and penalties, according to court records.

On Monday, prosecutors said they believed the sentence for Freeman was fair, although they had asked for a prison term of more than three years. “He abused some of the poorest working-class members of this community,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Elisa Fernandez said.

In arguing for a lighter punishment, Freeman’s attorneys said their client had devoted much of his life to helping others and caring for his family. Prosecutors responded to that portrayal by pointing to a slew of wrongdoing Freeman is accused of having committed — including bigamy and having sexual affairs with union staff members — beyond the offenses for which he was convicted in January.

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