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Wednesday, October 4, 2000

Four union
officials kicked out
of Unity House

Gill, Soriano, Kahele
and Kozuma are accused
of plotting to 'steal' assets

By Debra Barayuga

Four high-ranking union officials accused of plotting to "steal" assets of Unity House and splitting them between two unions have been ousted from the nonprofit organization which administers millions of dollars in assets for union members and spouses.

Saying they have a fiduciary duty to protect Unity House assets, five of seven board members present voted unanimously last night to expel Eric Gill, financial secretary of Local 5; Orlando Soriano, Local 5 president; Mel Kahele, Hawaii Teamsters and Allied Workers president, Local 996; and Ronan Kozuma, Local 996 secretary-treasurer.

Sean Kim, attorney for the ousted members, objected to the board's claims.

"If they're accusing my clients of stealing, it's false and defamatory, and I will talk to my clients about filing defamation action against Unity House."

The four had filed a lawsuit in state court last month seeking to block their expulsion, contending they were denied due process.

Board members who voted during a less-than-90-minute meeting at Unity House headquarters included Anthony Rutledge, whom Gill defeated in the recent Local 5 election.

The four violated Chapter 7 of the organization's bylaws -- for "conduct injurious to the corporation," said Unity House attorney Michael Green.

Before the Unity House board meeting yesterday, Circuit Judge Gary Chang denied a request from the four expelled union leaders to prevent their ouster, noting that Unity House has bylaws to deal fairly with its membership and needed to follow its own organizational procedures.

"This board must be given the opportunity to fulfill their fiduciary obligations," Chang said.

Chang could rule as early as today on a motion for a preliminary injunction against the expulsion. Yesterday he called the motion "premature," but depending on the outcome of the board's meeting, "there may be certain rights implicated that require court protection."

Green said Gill's group is seeking to destroy the organization where they seek to maintain their membership.

On July 8, two high-ranking officials from Teamsters Local 5, the hotel and restaurant workers union, and two from Teamsters Local 996, which represents bus workers, met with Soriano, a Unity House board member, and "planned to steal assets and give it to two nonmember unions whose members are not all members of Unity House," Green said.

While the plaintiffs did meet on July 8, the purpose was to get involved in the internal affairs of Local 5 and Local 996, Kim said, declining to elaborate.

Soriano had sought Unity House payroll records, resolutions and minutes after the July 8 meeting -- an absolute right he has under the corporation's bylaws, Kim said. "How can he be expelled for exercising those rights?"

Under state law, members have a right to sue to liquidate a corporation, Kim said.

"They're saying, 'You have the statutory right to file suit under certain circumstances, but if you ask for the right to look at records to see if those circumstances exist, we have the right to kick you out,' and that's just wrong."

The ousted members have 30 days to appeal the board's decision but will do so "only if the court forces us to," Kim said.

The four could not be reached for immediate comment.

The expulsion means they no longer have the right to vote, attend meetings or participate in the affairs of the corporation.

Three other members facing identical charges and allegedly present at the July 8 meeting were expelled last month after they failed to appear at a hearing or dispute the charges, Green said. Those ousted members also have 30 days to appeal.

The board notified the plaintiffs of the charges against them, gave them time to submit evidence, and held a hearing, Green said. They had until yesterday to respond to the charges and appear at the meeting, but none did, said Unity House spokesman Jim Boersema.

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