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Saturday, September 16, 2000

Union members
face Unity House
‘kangaroo court’

By Christine Donnelly

Four members of Unity House refused to answer most questions under oath yesterday at a hearing one described as a "kangaroo court" designed to engineer their ousters despite a lack of evidence.

"Basically, they are trying to kick us out for charges that are untrue, which we have denied, for which they have no accuser, no evidence, yet they demand we mount a defense," said Eric Gill, financial secretary-treasurer of Local 5 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. "I don't doubt that they are going to take some action to kick us out. I am quite confident that such action will not withstand judicial scrutiny."

Gill; Local 5 President Orlando Soriano; Mel Kahele, president of the Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers, Local 996; and Ronan Kozuma, Local 996 secretary-treasurer are accused of conspiring to disband Unity House and divide its assets between the Local 5 and Local 996. They deny the accusation and have sought a Circuit Court order to prevent their ousters. A hearing is scheduled for Oct. 3.

The four were summoned to a meeting yesterday by the Unity House board of directors, including Tony Rutledge, whom Gill defeated in the most recent Local 5 election.

Gill said he was sworn in and took the stand, denied the charges, but refused to answer further questions given the "kangaroo court" atmosphere.

Unity House spokesman Jim Boersema said all four, questioned separately, read prepared statements and refused to answer most questions under oath on the advice of their lawyer. The four would be given several weeks to submit written testimony, after which the board would make a decision. Of the four, only Soriano is a Unity House director; the other three are members.

Boersema said three other Unity House members he refused to name were accused of the same violations and summoned to the hearing but did not appear. The board will move to expel them, giving them 30 days to appeal, he said.

Unity House is a nonprofit group that administers assets for union members and supporters. Active and retired members of the Hotel Workers and Teamsters unions comprise the vast majority of its membership.

Boersema said the organization was established in the 1950s with union loans that were invested in Waikiki real estate that has greatly increased in value. The loans were long since repaid, he said, adding that Unity House had no contractual obligation to either Local 5 or Local 996.

But Gill countered that Rutledge and his allies were trying to oust him and the others because they objected to the way Unity House's money was spent. He said Rutledge refused to open the books even to Soriano, the board treasurer.

"I'm not saying that all of that money belongs to the union or its members, but I'm not going to stipulate that none of it does," said Gill. "I'm just trying to protect our members."

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