Secretive nationwide network gives SEIU new organizing muscle

rpollock Reporter
Font Size:

This is the first in a Daily Caller investigative series.

The politically aggressive Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has quietly created a national network of at least eight community-organizing groups, some of which function alongside the Occupy Wall Street movement, a Daily Caller investigation shows.

Incorporated by the SEIU as local non-profits, the groups are waging concerted local political campaigns to publicly attack conservative political figures, banks, energy companies and other corporations.

Each local group has portrayed itself as an independent community organization not tied to any special interest. But they were founded, incorporated, and led by SEIU personnel.

The individual activist groups use benign-sounding names including This Is Our DC; Good Jobs, Great Houston; Good Jobs, Better Baltimore; Good Jobs Now in Detroit; Fight for Philly; One Pittsburgh; Good Jobs LA; and Minnesotans for a Fair Economy.

In reality, they are creations of the wealthy and influential labor union, amounting to a secret network of new SEIU front groups.

On two occasions in 2011, approximately 30 Our DC protesters descended on the congressional office of Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The first of those two December efforts was part of a “Take Back the Capital” campaign orchestrated by union officials and coinciding with an Occupy DC rally.

A source told the Daily Caller that while African-American and Hispanic protesters sat in McConnell’s office, two Caucasian women from Our DC directed the protesters from the hallway. The staffers called reporters, operated laptops and posted messages to Twitter.

That event was promoted through a “99% in DC” website, which Internet Web server records indicate was managed by the union. But Our DC activists were quick to advise local media outlets not to confuse them with the Occupy movement.

Still, Washington activists themselves reported on an “Occupy K Street” rally later that same weekend in which Occupy DC and Our DC groups marched side by side.

Other protest events organized by Our DC have targeted House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Virginia Republican Rep. Frank Wolf.

In the months since Occupy DC began growing in numbers and influence, Our DC has cooperated with that movement at several protest rallies.

One was the “National Day of Action for the 99%,” which shut down portions of the Francis Scott Key Bridge connecting Washington, D.C. with the state of Virginia.

Another was the series of demonstrations against the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. At that event, Our DC members wearing the group’s t-shirts carried “We are the 99%” signs alongside Occupy DC protesters.

A YouTube video titled “Occupy CPAC” shows an “Our DC member speak[ing]” through a megaphone in front of several “99%” signs.

Another video, shot at the same location and published by The Huffington Post, shows a giant “Occupy United” banner in front of protesters waving identical “99%” signs.

The SEIU’s connection to Our DC and other local groups is clear. An SEIU-tied Washington, D.C. law firm incorporated each of them. The founding board members are solely SEIU executives and organizers. In each city the founding addresses match those of SEIU locals.

For example, the legal name of the Los Angeles group “Good Jobs LA,” is “Good Jobs, Safe Communities LA.” It is registered with the California Secretary of State at the Sacramento headquarters address of SEIU California.

The street addresses listed on many of the websites themselves, however, do not correspond with SEIU locals.

At least one of the websites, “One Pittsburgh,” provides a list of 14 “coalition partners,” including the NAACP, the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, and locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers and an Ironworkers union affiliated with the AFL-CIO. The SEIU is among that list, making its role appear minor.

The Daily Caller previously reported on a similar tactic employed in February by the United Auto Workers, which sought to distance itself from a “99% Spring” campaign scheduled for April. Planning documents described that union as one participant of many, even though the documents were being distributed from an unprotected portion of a UAW Web server.

Many of the Internet domain names for the groups’ websites were originally registered through an anonymous proxy service. But records compiled by Robtex.com, a website reputation management firm, reveal that all of their IP (Internet Protocol) addresses link back to a main SEIU Web server.

An IP address is a unique number assigned to an Internet-connected computer or computer network.

The principal IP address of the SEIU’s main Web server reveals an inventory of 69 Web domains representing union and advocacy groups throughout the United States. All of the sites corresponding to the city-specific SEIU front groups are on that server.

Most of their websites have similar visual designs and appear to be based on the same template — a template that The Daily Caller was able to identify on an unprotected SEIU server.

As 501 (c)(4) non-profit organizations, the SEIU-related groups are tax-exempt, meaning they do not pay federal taxes on their income. Their donors, however, are not entitled to deduct their contributions on their own income tax returns.

While the Occupy movement abhors corporate secrecy, demanding that Wall Street firms and banks open their books, the new SEIU network is marked by a lack of transparency that runs afoul of best-practice standards established by the non-profit and philanthropic communities.

While the union is creating non-profits that mask its relationship to the union, the world of mainstream charities has been moving toward greater openness.

Daniel Borochoff, the president of CharityWatch, a national watchdog group that evaluates charities for donors, says the SEIU and its offspring are dishonest.

“I would call it lying by omission. By leaving stuff out that’s relevant, it’s a passive way of not telling the truth,” he told The Daily Caller.

“If this union is playing a major role in the governance, policy and politics of the organization, it should not be hidden. It should be up-front about this,” Borochoff added.

For attorney Jeff Hurwit, the groups’ secrecy is contrary to the principals of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“If you’re calling for openness and transparency and to organize it in way that’s secretive, that’s hypocritical,” he told The Daily Caller.

Hurwit is a principal in the Boston-based law firm of Hurwit & Associates. Nationally, his firm represents more than 2,500 non-profit organizations.

While he is sympathetic to the cause of Occupy Wall Street, Hurwit said secrecy has no place in the movement. “Who are the stewards of your organization, the trustees, the directors, so there would be confidence in your organization?”

SEIU is a well-endowed labor union with national reach, receiving dues from more than 2 million members, mainly workers in the service and hotel industries. Its annual budget exceeds $209 million. In 2011 the union spent more than $1.5 million just lobbying Congress, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Carl Horowitz, who directs the Organized Labor Accountability Project at the National Legal and Policy Center, said creating new organizations out of whole cloth is a time-tested labor union strategy.

“Unions very commonly disguise their motives behind some seemingly innocuous nonprofit citizen group — some concerned, ad hoc grassroots group of citizens who are simply concerned about jobs, their neighborhoods, their country,” he told The Daily Caller.

“Deep down, when you look at who’s providing the money and the leadership, it’s directed by a union. This is their style.”

The organization’s name — “Our DC” — suggests a home-grown organization based in Washington and created by its citizens.

Incorporation papers obtained by The Daily Caller, however, show that its legal address is in Gaithersburg, Md. — the headquarters address of SEIU Local 500. That union office is about midway between the nation’s capital and Baltimore, Md.

The Our DC website does not identify its board of directors, officers, staff, funding or union affiliation. It does provide the street address of SEIU’s national headquarters — not its legal address in Md. — in small print.

Our DC was incorporated in April 2011 as a 501(c)(4) non-profit by SEIU lawyers, according to legal documents obtained by the Daily Caller. Those papers show the original Our DC board consisted of David Rodich, Valarie Long and Beth Myers. Rodich and Myers both work for Maryland Local 500, Rodich as executive director.

Long is the SEIU’s executive vice president. She was previously vice president of the massive SEIU Local 32BJ, based in Washington. That local organizes more than 120,000 property service workers, including janitors, doormen, window-washers, building superintendents and security officers.

Despite the use by Our DC of “99 percent” rhetoric usually identified with the Occupy movement, Rodich and Long both receive comfortable six-figure salaries. The Center for Union Facts reports that Rodich was paid $146,000 in 2010.  Long’s 2010 salary was $155,000.

The Center also discloses that Kendall Fells, the executive director of Our DC, is an SEIU employee. His SEIU salary in 2010 was $102,400.

The SEIU used the law firm of Trister, Ross, Schadler and Gold to legally incorporate many of the local community groups. The firm was responsible for incorporating the groups in Houston, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington.

Michael Trister, the firm’s principal partner, is a well-known labor lawyer. In 1998 he wrote a federal election law manual for union lawyers.

The union frequently uses his firm as litigation and regulatory counsel. In October, for example, Trister law partner Laurence Gold submitted comments on New York’s campaign finance law on behalf of SEIU Local 323BJ in New York City.

Trister is listed on Our DC’s incorporation papers as one of the three formal incorporators. The other two are employees in his law office.

Trister did not respond to requests for comment.

In addition to criticism from Charity Watch, other non-profit watchdogs differ with the SEIU’s choice of assembling front groups to wage their battles.

The Charities Review Council, an independent resource for donors, advises nonprofits to list their board of directors on their web site for public inspection along with financial information.

The Council on Foundations agrees and indicates that all nonprofits should “avoid any conflict of interest in its operations and, where possible, to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.”

Independent Sector, which represents 600 nonprofits, is also tough on public disclosure of ownership and board members. “A charitable organization should adopt and implement policies and procedures to ensure that all conflicts of interest, or the appearance thereof, within the organization and the board are appropriately managed through disclosure,” the watchdog says.

Hurwit concluded that the SEIU operation violates these ethical rules, and more.

“What really gets me,” he said, “is when someone tries to come and take over like this kind of thing, [and] then is not open, transparent or even truthful,”

Our DC spokesman James Adams declined on three separate occasions to discuss with The Daily Caller anything related to his organization. The SEIU also did not return phone messages left with its communication department.