Wednesday, March 17, 1999

UPW chief spied
on top staffer,
say court filings

Rodrigues' target, who was
fired last year, claims
that it was retaliation

By Ian Lind


A private investigator was hired by United Public Workers Director Gary Rodrigues last year to spy on a top union staff member, according to court documents.

The target of the surveillance was John Witeck, then UPW's assistant Oahu division director and a 26-year veteran of the union.

Witeck was fired by Rodrigues without warning on June 10, 1998, several weeks after the surveillance ended.

The surveillance was disclosed in documents filed by UPW attorneys in two related Circuit Court lawsuits attempting to block Witeck from collecting unemployment benefits.

Rodrigues said the operation turned up violations of union policies on mileage reimbursement and working hours.

Witeck said he was a victim of retaliation and was targeted because of his ties to a former UPW business agent who aided Rodrigues' opponent in the last union election, the first challenge to Rodrigues in 14 years, records show.

Neither Rodrigues nor Honolulu attorney Robert F. Miller, who represents UPW in the matter, responded to written questions faxed to them.

William J. Puette, director of the University of Hawaii's Center for Labor Education and Research, called the case unusual. "I've never heard of a case where a union leader authorized any kind of detective investigation of anybody on staff," Puette said. "I've just never heard of that happening."

Puette said an investigation of suspected illegal activity could be justified, but surveillance for internal political purposes could be contrary to federal labor law.

In an affidavit, Rodrigues said he retained former Honolulu police officer Bernard Kaopuiki on April 28, 1998, "and asked him to conduct surveillance." Kaopuiki was provided a photograph and description of Witeck, and began following him two days later. The surveillance continued until May 21, 1998, documents show.

Kaopuiki sometimes waited outside Witeck's home or office in order to follow when he left, and other times was called by someone at UPW headquarters when Witeck left the building. The investigator then pursued Witeck's car and recorded details of his activities, including the physical descriptions and license numbers of people Witeck met. A written report was later given to Rodrigues.

A notice of termination signed by Rodrigues accused Witeck of knowingly submitting false mileage reports for reimbursement, making "material misrepresentations" of hours worked, and making false entries on employee sign-out logs.

"Be further advised that in the event there is public or media disclosure of your termination from employment with the UPW, we reserve the right to disclose and pursue the basis for this action as specified," the letter said.

Witeck argued he was an "exempt" employee who was not required to keep regular hours, received a monthly salary no matter how many hours were worked, and often had to accommodate predawn or late-night meetings along with his regular daily schedule.

The state Labor Department ruled in favor of Witeck and against UPW, allowing him to eventually receive about $1,900 in unemployment payments.

Witeck said he was never provided with specifics of the charges against him and had no opportunity to question or challenge the allegations. He was repeatedly denied a meeting with Rodrigues to discuss his performance reviews and did not get any response to a written grievance, records show.

"We go after employers who act like this," Witeck testified. "They (Rodrigues and UPW) have violated every due-process right, every investigative right. They never gave me a chance to respond to these charges before they fired me, and they ended 26 years of service at the union that I loved."

Witeck said his problems were linked to his friendship with former UPW business agent Solette Perry, now a state personnel specialist.

UPW has charged Perry with improperly supporting the union election campaign of Frank Hirazumi, who ran unsuccessfully against Rodrigues in 1997. In a complaint filed with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, UPW argued Perry's campaign activities constituted illegal meddling by the state, as employer, in internal union affairs.

Witeck was subpoenaed by his union Feb. 17, 1998, to appear before the labor board as a hostile witness in the Perry case. It was the same day he received the first of several unsatisfactory job performance ratings from Rodrigues.

"I did not support the election of this member (Hirazumi), but I was singled out and served a subpoena as a hostile witness by my union employer in late February 1998, and after that received hostile memos from the state director who also refused to meet with me," Witeck said in his written grievance.

Witeck was fired on the same day that Georgietta Carroll, Rodrigues' former secretary, resigned from the union after reportedly settling a sexual harassment claim against Rodrigues and UPW.

Two women who worked for Carroll at UPW headquarters were also fired at about the same time, Witeck said.

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