Former Miami-Dade teachers union boss Pat Tornillo is up to his python-print pajama tops in a federal investigation into his alleged misuse of union funds, including lavish spending on travel, hotels, and personal items -- this despite his hefty $243,000 annual salary, a rent-free residence, and other perks generously provided by thousands of underpaid teachers. It's the kind of thing that can happen when a leader is allowed to rule for decades with little scrutiny.
Yet back in the mid-Eighties, Elizabeth du Fresne, a labor attorney and close Tornillo friend, was so worried about Tornillo's financial security that she began paying $500 per month into an annuity for the little tough guy who'd helped launch her legal career. "He'd had a divorce in the Seventies in which he basically gave everything to his wife," recalls du Fresne, who is now retired. "I established an annuity in the Eighties because I was deeply concerned that Tornillo didn't have a plan for the future. I was scared at that stage what he and [current wife] Donna would do when he retired."
At the time, du Fresne certainly didn't expect Tornillo (now 77 years old) to hang on to his job for another twenty years, or that his otherwise impressive four-decade legacy would be eclipsed by the sight of federal agents carting all those boxes of financial records out of United Teachers of Dade headquarters. Nor did she know then that Tornillo's connections to high-profile lobbyists (such as Eric "Ric" Sisser and before him the legendary Steve Ross) and his manipulation of school-district insurance contracts that benefited their clients would eventually stink so badly even the olfactory-challenged school board would have to take note.
Du Fresne, who served as long-time legal counsel to the union, was instrumental in setting up one of those insurance deals for teachers, a prepaid plan that gives employees who choose it access to inexpensive legal advice. Essentially only one company has had the contract since its inception in 1981 (the original company, Midwest Legal Services, was bought in 1989 by ARAG Group). With 11,724 employees enrolled in the program as of this past May, that contract is worth an estimated $2.43 million to ARAG Group in 2003 alone.
Which is one reason the feds may want to learn more about why du Fresne for years was earning several thousand dollars per month as a consultant to the insurance company, at roughly the same time she was giving Tornillo $500 monthly toward his retirement. According to du Fresne's ex-husband and former law partner William du Fresne, the arrangement was a bit strange. He made that observation in a 1998 deposition taken during a lawsuit over an unrelated business matter. William du Fresne was suing attorney Teresa Pooler, claiming she owed him about $9000 for assuming maintenance of Midwest Legal Services' prepaid hotline when he retired and moved to New Mexico in 1995.
During the deposition, du Fresne was asked by Pooler's attorney, Scott Bernstein, to clarify how Midwest paid his firm, Du Fresne and Bradley, for the services it provided. He replied that handling the Midwest contract was worth about $12,000 to $14,000 per month to his firm in 1995. Bernstein then asked du Fresne whether he passed any of the money from Midwest to third parties. Du Fresne noted that although the money earned from the contract stayed in his firm, he did distribute "other funds" sent by Midwest.
Bernstein: "What other funds were they?"
Du Fresne: "Midwest paid a monthly fee to my former partner Elizabeth du Fresne. Elizabeth was the main -- Elizabeth and Pat Tornillo, who is the executive vice president of UTD, they were the main reason that when the Dade County school board decided to implement an insurance policy, a group insurance policy for their employees, that Midwest was chosen. There were other candidates, and so as an administrative fee, they sent to my office monies for Elizabeth each month."
Bernstein: "Did they also send money for Pat Tornillo?"
Du Fresne: "Yes."
Du Fresne went on to say that his ex-wife received $3666.67 each month.
Bernstein: "And how much went to Pat Tornillo?"
Du Fresne: "I think he got $500. And it's mostly because in addition to the United Teachers of Dade, Pat Tornillo was the leader of the statewide branch of the American Federation of Teachers, and in that capacity he was able to recede [sic] into other school districts and they adopted Midwest...."
Bernstein: "Did Elizabeth du Fresne provide any legal services for Midwest?"
Du Fresne: "Yes. Well, she advised them. If they had a problem or whatever, she would advise them." (He went on to explain that his ex-wife was counsel to both UTD and Midwest, even after leaving his firm to join Steel Hector & Davis. The monthly $3666 was her fee from Midwest.)
Bernstein persisted in his puzzlement: "But approximately $44,000 a year was sent to Elizabeth du Fresne by Midwest, and it was funneled through your law firm, even though she was no longer an employee of your law firm. Is that what you're telling me?"
Du Fresne confirmed this. When Bernstein asked him if he'd claimed the money as business income, he said he did not since he simply deposited the check "in trust with respect to Elizabeth and Pat." Bernstein's question echoed one asked by his client Teresa Pooler in December 1995, after she took over the Midwest contract. In a letter to du Fresne in New Mexico, Pooler asked, "How did you handle the payouts to Elizabeth and Tornillo for tax purposes? Do I need to send them a W-something form?"
Indeed it would seem an odd arrangement, but Elizabeth du Fresne says her ex-husband is simply wrong about the nature of it. "It's interesting that Bill thought that way," she muses. "I never knew that. He interconnected two things that certainly in my mind were never connected." The monthly $500 payments she made to Tornillo were merely a gift from her, she says, and not connected to the insurance contract. "Not a penny of that money has gone to Pat Tornillo," she stresses. "I handled those checks myself."
Here's how Elizabeth du Fresne remembers events: In 1974 she won a court battle for the right to provide a legal-services insurance program for teachers. The next step was persuading the school board to help pay for it. So she set up a pilot project in which her law firm provided the service to teachers from about 1976 to 1980. "I spent in excess of $400,000 of my law firm's money to demonstrate the need because the school board didn't get it," she says. "People need to use lawyers and they don't use them because they are afraid of how much it will cost."
Then in 1980 Tornillo and United Teachers of Dade negotiated the addition of a prepaid legal-services plan to the school district's à la carte menu of benefits for 1981. As du Fresne remembers it, a request for proposals was sent out and five companies applied, including her firm. Du Fresne says the board was leaning toward giving her the contract because she already had been providing the service, but she was uncertain she wanted to continue doing it. "The closer we got to the vote, the less I wanted to do this," she recounts. "I looked at the RFPs of each company and Midwest hands-down looked like the best of the products. So I stand up before the school board and say I am withdrawing my own application and I'm going to serve as a consultant to whoever ends up doing this. I recommended to the board Midwest."
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The board voted for Midwest. "From that time on I served as a consultant to Midwest and later to ARAG, who bought them," she says. And the $500 per month du Fresne says she gave Tornillo for "about twenty years"? After reading the relevant portions of the deposition, du Fresne says her ex-husband is "just absolutely wrong" in connecting her gift to Tornillo with her paycheck from the insurance company (for whom she still consults, although she retired from Steel Hector & Davis in 2000 to fight cancer). "I did it out of love and affection," she maintains, noting that Tornillo's salary wasn't always so lucrative. "Pat was my kid's godfather and a dear friend to me. When I had $500, I sent $500. And when I didn't have it, I haven't sent it. This was my present to Tornillo. I was thrilled to do it." The affection clearly goes both ways. Last year UTD proposed naming one of its planned charter schools after her.
From his home in New Mexico, William du Fresne refuses to be drawn into ancient debates. It's been too long to remember the details, he claims. "Probably everything in that deposition is as close to the truth as you're going to get," he says. "I recall that she told me at one time that she was giving money to Tornillo." He notes that "most everybody at the union knew Pat was living pretty well."
The FBI issued its standard no comment regarding the ongoing investigation into Tornillo's finances. Neither Tornillo nor his attorney returned phone messages seeking comment for this story.