Reminder for union leaders


POSTED: Thursday, December 17, 2009

A considerable payment of illegally diverted funds from the United Public Workers union by its imprisoned former president has been returned to the union, serving as a reminder that financial books be accessible to the rank and file. The payment also reminds labor leaders that improper use of power reflects poorly on those they are obligated to serve.

Gary Rodrigues, 67, paid $378,103.63 in restitution this week for money he embezzled from the UPW, the Hawaii local of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Rodrigues and his daughter, Robin Sabatini, 45, an accountant, were convicted of multiple charges of fraud, embezzlement and money laundering.

Essentially, Rodrigues was found to have surreptitiously negotiated “;consulting fees”; for the union's dental and medical contracts and directed the money to his daughter. They were convicted in 2002 and began serving prison terms of five years and four months for Rodrigues and three years and 10 months for Sabatini after their appeals were exhausted in 2008.

The UPW's executive board was negligent in allowing Rodrigues to conceal financial weapons. AFSCME was also derelict until the government investigated the impropriety after Star-Bulletin articles reported the allegations.

An AFSCME vice president had rejected charges in 1999 by current and former UPW shop stewards and had whitewashed Rodrigues' ties to a company that supplied building materials for UPW offices on neighbor islands.

Union members and executive boards should be reminded that their leaders not be allowed limitless power. In this case, Rodrigues, a UPW business agent at age 23, became one of Hawaii's most powerful labor leaders after he was elected its state director in 1981 and president of the state AFL-CIO four years later, holding that post for several years.

Union members were not the only ones to ingratiate themselves with Rodrigues. The state Supreme Court appointed him in 1994 to serve on a committee to recommend Bishop Estate trustee candidates and three years later he was appointed by then-Senate President Norman Mizuguchi to the state Judicial Selection Commission.

A few brave UPW members finally toppled Rodrigues and the union now is “;more membership-run instead of being run from the top down,”; Keith Faufata, one of three chief stewards who accused Rodrigues of violating the union's constitution, told the Star-Bulletin's Leila Fujimori.

“;It's a union of people,”; said Faufata, a sewer line maintenance worker. “;A union is not one man's leadership.”;