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PSTA union in disarray amid infighting and allegations of impropriety

ST. PETERSBURG — The president of the Tampa Bay Area Transit Workers Union is a tyrant who abuses his power to punish critics, refuses to hold elections that could take him from power, and might have pocketed gift cards meant for members, according to a new lawsuit filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.

The plaintiffs, Matthew Harper, Rebecca Algeri and April Murphy, are former or current employees of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority who filed their lawsuit against the union and its president, Oaksin "Oakie" O'Hara.

The complaint, filed April 24 in Pinellas County Court, asks a judge to force the union to hold elections, give hearings to Algeri and Murphy for alleged bylaw violations and force O'Hara to return any of the $1,550 in missing gift cards he may have, or compensate the union for their value.

The suit claims five years have passed since the union held an election for president and other positions on its 11-member board of directors. The union's constitution and bylaws require elections every three years.

"As a result of the failure to hold proper nominating meetings and elections for all board positions, the defendant is … eroding the very foundation upon which union democracy rests," the complaint states.

When Murphy, who served as vice-president, filed complaints against O'Hara, the board of directors did not convene a trial board to hear the allegations, the suit states. Instead, the trial board heard charges against Murphy and subsequently removed her from office without the required approval of the union membership, the complaint alleges.

The suit does not specify the complaints Murphy levied against O'Hara but asks a judge to require the union to hold a hearing. In an interview, Murphy said she accused O'Hara of misappropriating union funds. She declined to offer details, citing the pending suit. As for the allegations against her, she said she was falsely accused of being disloyal to a fellow member by telling management that he needed to be drug tested because he was drinking on the job.

According to the suit, Murphy's appeal filed last November has yet to be heard by the trial board.

Algeri claims she was suspended in December from her position as a union officer without a hearing by the trial board.

In late 2010, the complaint alleges, O'Hara used union money to buy 340 gift cards as holiday gifts for members. At the time, there were 309 members. Murphy claims she saw O'Hara place the remaining 31 gift cards, worth $50 each, in his desk drawer.

O'Hara, who has not yet responded to the lawsuit, did not return a message seeking comment.

In December, Harper and Algeri filed a complaint with the state's Public Employee Relations Commission alleging that union leadership was breaking state law by failing to provide financial records to members. A hearing officer agreed, writing in a May 2 ruling that the union failed to have its financial accounts open for inspection. The officer ordered the union leadership to make the records available.

Murphy, who retired last year, said the turmoil has taken a toll on the small union's membership, which she estimated at about 300 PSTA drivers, maintenance workers and customer service representatives.

"The members want elections," she said. "They want their voice back."

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

PSTA union in disarray amid infighting and allegations of impropriety 05/08/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 8, 2014 7:44pm]
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