Teachers union rot went deep

Published Sept. 6, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

Miami-Dade County teachers union officials misused or diverted nearly $3.5-million, including nearly $2.5-million used by its former leader for personal luxuries, an audit found.

Pat Tornillo, who resigned as president, took nearly $900,000 in cash from the United Teachers of Dade, spent another $677,000 on union credit cards, let the union spend $685,000 on maintenance and servants for his homes and $112,000 for his life insurance, the 19-page audit says.

Under a plea agreement, Tornillo pleaded guilty last week to mail fraud and filing a false tax return. The 78-year-old Tallahassee resident will go to federal prison for two years and pay $650,000 back to the union, if a federal judge approves at a scheduled Nov. 7 hearing.

The audit released Thursday was commissioned by the American Federation of Teachers, which has taken control of its local affiliate.

The union _ the Southeast's largest with 28,000 members _ is planning to sue Tornillo and others who used its funds inappropriately, said Mark Richard, interim administrator.

Tornillo and late UTD president Murray Sisselman used $2.2-million paid by colleges to the union to finance trips in the United States and abroad, including luxury vacations in the Caribbean, Europe and the Far East, the audit said.

"I'm disgusted by the amount of graft and corruption and greed," said Bill Zeller, a union steward at Miami Springs Senior High.

The union also bought two $750,000 life insurance policies on Tornillo. Known as "key man" policies, they cost $56,380 a year and were supposed to protect the union if its longtime leader died. The beneficiary, however, was Tornillo's wife, Donna, not the union, the audit found.

In the weeks leading up to an FBI raid on the union's headquarters in April, favored staff members were allowed to cash out more than $88,000 in unused vacation and sick time, even though the union's financial crisis was well-known.

Payouts went to such high-ranking personnel as secretary-treasurer Shirley Johnson ($6,750) and chief financial officer James Angleton ($6,538). Only Johnson and two others are still on staff.

The union wrote to all 14 payout recipients demanding the money back, but none has responded, said the AFT's general manager, Mike Benner.

Benner said the union will conduct a second phase of the audit to examine the UTD's deals with contractors and business partners, areas not covered under Tornillo's plea agreement.

"We're going to roll a lot more stones over," he said. "Nobody gets a pass."