TAMPA — For almost four years, names unknown to longtime longshoremen appeared on a list of work crews loading and unloading ships and portering luggage from cruise ships at Port Tampa Bay.
Some of them were recorded as working hundreds of hours, enough to qualify for holiday pay and pension, but they were never seen at the port, leaving the rest of the crew to pick up the slack.
But these “ghost workers” were sent paychecks, which were shared between them and a stevedore manager, according to a grand jury indictment filed in federal court in Tampa on Friday.
Michael Ruff, a former operations manager for Ceres Marine Terminals, recruited six other people into the scheme to defraud his employer, the indictment states. Between 2013 and 2017, he submitted payroll documents that “fraudulently and falsely” showed that Felix Santoyo, Felicha Santoyo, Jose Trujillo, Michelle Clas and Stephanie Telesmanick had performed porter or longshoreman work at the port, it states.
A total of roughly $113,000 was paid to the ghost workers, court documents show.
The six have been indicted on charges of wire and mail fraud. If convicted, they face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The indictment states they would also need to return the stolen money.
Ruff, who was fired from Ceres in 2017, also recruited longshoreman Jerry Reyes to the scheme, the indictment states. Reyes was charged with conspiring to commit wire and mail fraud in 2018 after receiving more than $10,000 for hours he never worked.
The alleged ghost worker scheme first came to light in 2017 when an investigation was launched into the International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1402 by its national organization. That was quickly followed by a U.S. Department of Labor investigation.
The investigation led to the union’s national executive council appointing a trustee to temporarily run the union.
No union leaders or officials are named in the indictment.
Evan Cotten, a former union clerk who worked for 50 years at the port, was one of the whistleblowers in the case. It was while he was serving as a trustee of the union’s pension and health care fund that he started seeing names of workers he didn’t recognize. Other longshoremen he asked were equally puzzled.
Cotten said he cannot understand how the union could not have been aware of the scheme.
Coveted work assignments are awarded to longshoremen by the union based on seniority. Members gather each morning at the union hall on E Harrison Street in Tampa, hoping to qualify to service the ships expected that day.
Union officials routinely review which members are working and how many hours they are logging, Cotten said, and paychecks are mailed to the union’s headquarters.
Since three of the alleged ghost workers were women, that would have drawn attention, he said. There are only a handful of women who regularly work loading and unloading ships.
“You see a woman’s name, they’ll stick out like a sore thumb to anyone who sees the list,” he said.
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Union officials did not respond to an email requesting comment. The union’s phone number did not accept voicemails. A spokesman for the international parent organization did not provide a comment by the end of the day Monday.
A ghost worker scheme wouldn’t just mean lost work for longshoremen. They need to work at least 700 hours in a 12-month period to maintain their seniority and qualify for pension and holiday pay benefits, Cotten said.
He is hoping there may be more indictments to come.
“This may be just the beginning,” Cotten said.