Hot for Teachers

Miami-Dade public school teachers have been contemplating who should lead their union, the United Teachers of Dade. The choice came down to former UTD secretary-treasurer Shirley Johnson or English teacher Karen Aronowitz and their affiliated slates. Voting ended December 9. In the vacuum left after embezzling padrón Pat Tornillo went to jail, the power struggle has gotten a bit ugly.

Aronowitz and her supporters cast Johnson as representing the old guard. There is no evidence that Johnson was directly involved in Tornillo's schemes, but Aronowitz maintains that silence in the face of mounting problems abetted them. "If [Shirley] allowed herself to be marginalized because she was comfortable with her salary," she says, "she cannot run away from it when it doesn't suit her any longer."

Johnson believes some union employees actively worked to discredit her. Privately, her supporters have suggested this is because Johnson is black. "I don't know who it is who wants to keep me out," Johnson says. "It's pretty clear that as far as experience, I'm the most qualified."

Actually, no matter who leads the union, its health requires a vigilant membership that demands transparency. Tornillo got away with so much for so long because others let him. Here are a few highlights from two lawsuits UTD and its parent, the American Federation of Teachers, filed against Tornillo and other former union officials and employees:

One lawsuit, filed last year, charges that Tornillo, former union president Murray Sisselman, and their wives had been "systematically looting" union coffers since at least 1990, making off with more than three million dollars.

James Angleton, Jr. met Tornillo when his bank (TotalBank) loaned the union money to build a headquarters on Biscayne Boulevard. In August 2001, Tornillo offered him a $135,000 gig as the union's chief financial officer. Boss man had been siphoning union money for years. Why would he suddenly want to create a new position and hire an outsider who would inevitably discover the mess in the books?

The answer, according to the lawsuit, was that Angleton was happy to cover up Tornillo's malfeasance in order to enrich himself and his friends. He hired as consultants long-time friend David Albaum and Robert Heber, an ex-spy who helped Angleton start up the Miami chapter of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (even, stupidly, listing the UTD building as a principal place of business). Albaum collected $288,043 for 18 months of advising his buddy. Heber got $48,084. "It is unclear what work Heber performed for UTD or Angleton," alleges the lawsuit.

Angleton made liberal use of signature stamps for both Tornillo and Johnson, thus getting around the necessary dual approvals for spending union money. He fired Grant Thornton, the accounting firm that had audited the union's books for years, and hired another firm, Cummings-Grayson, which also proved inept and is also included in the UTD lawsuit.

Angleton also, the lawsuit claims, mismanaged the construction of the union building to the degree that an $11 million project eventually cost $19 million. Angleton and Albaum loaned the sinking union money at mind-blowing rates -- $76,000 interest over five months on a loan of $150,000. Another Angleton associate, attorney Richard Krinzman (a former Friends of WLRN board chairman), also loaned UTD money -- $100,000, for which he received $10,000 in interest over just three months. Krinzman at the time was representing a developer in its attempt to buy a HUD building for the elderly that UTD owned. He also was the attorney for a company owned by Angleton and his father, a clear conflict of interest. To cover up all this and more, Angleton presented false numbers to the union's executive board and local banks.

By April 2003 the union's serious financial problems were becoming known. So Angleton ran to the FBI and tattled on Tornillo. Then he gave the Miami Herald a compelling story about how sickly Murray Sisselman had confessed Tornillo's crimes, picturesquely, over a meal at the Rascal House. Conveniently, Sisselman was dead and couldn't confirm this version of events. After spending 18 months looking at its ledgers, the union decided in October to sue Angleton and Albaum.

 
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