8 on Your Side: Corruption allegations involving Port Tampa Bay longshoremen’s union trigger action

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – 8 on Your Side has learned a union corruption investigation involving International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1402 in Tampa could result in the ouster of local executives and possibly even more serious consequences. In an exclusive interview, a whistleblower tells us he’s unmasked “ghost workers” who get paid for dock jobs they don’t perform at the expense of other union members. 

ILA Local 1402 President James Harrell, who earns $106,000 a year to run the Tampa Longshoremen’s union, insists he’s completely in the dark about allegations of “ghost workers” underlying that ILA investigation.

“I’ve been out sick. I’ve been out sick. I’ve been in the hospital, I don’t know nothing,” Harrell told 8 on Your Side.

When we questioned Harrell further, he insisted nobody was responsible for any wrongdoing in his local.

“Talk to the attorneys,” Harrell said. “Get out of my face.”

Harrell’s vice president at Local 1402, Leon Chandler, refused to comment on the alleged “ghost workers” and told 8 on Your Side to “talk to the attorneys.” Chandler wouldn’t identify which attorneys represent him, Harrell, or Local 1402.

For months now, ILA Pension Board Trustee Evan Cotten says he has been complaining to Harrell and other local leaders about so-called “ghost workers” listed on the ILA payroll as stevedores for cruise ships and cargo ships at Port Tampa Bay.

In an exclusive interview with 8 on Your Side, Cotten first laid out his concerns last month, because he believed Harrell and other union leaders were ignoring his call for an investigation.

“A lot of money is involved that has been distributed to people who didn’t earn it and a lot of people have been deprived of that money,” Cotten told us. “I think it’s criminal.”

Cotten claims he started uncovering “ghost workers” on the payroll of ILA Local 1402 back in November, 2016, around the time of his election as a trustee of the joint pension fund that covers longshoremen as well as his own clerks and checkers union. Clerks and checkers track longshoremen time sheets as well as the movement of cargo and supplies on and off the docks of Port Tampa Bay. Cotten showed us payroll records that he said proves the “ghost worker” problem goes back at least five years.

Now, after months of apparent inaction, Cotten’s whistleblower complaints are finally getting some traction within the ILA’s top international leadership based in Bergen, New Jersey. Tuesday, ILA VP Wilbert Rowell and VP Charles Montgomery will hold a hearing in Tampa in response to “ghost worker” charges involving the executive board of Local 1402 and a request for “the imposition of a trusteeship.”

A letter sent to ILA International President Harold Daggett on May 19th by ILA District President Alan Robb and copied to eight other union officials says “It has become clear that it is necessary to correct financial malpractice.” Robb goes on to say “This practice undermines the seniority system and allows for possible corruption and fraud.”

That letter set the stage for Tuesday’s hearing in Tampa at which Harrell, Chandler and other members of Local 1402’s executive board are invited to defend themselves and bring attorneys to represent them at their own expense.

For months now, Cotten has been researching and accumulating evidence related to those charges. Cotten tells us he’s worked as a union clerk on the docks of Port Tampa Bay for 50 years and starting back in November, he noticed a number of longshoremen names on payroll rosters that he didn’t know. Cotten began asking other union members if they knew the workers.

“At that time, no one could recognize these names,” Cotten said. Charles Gibson, a longshoreman since 1975 is one of those workers who was mystified by the “ghost workers.” “No way they could be on the dock and I don’t see them, not for that many hours,” Gibson said.

Cotten showed us time sheets indicating one “ghost worker” had received credit on the ILA Local 1402 payroll roster for a physically impossible work day. “He had been turned in on time sheets for three different ships on the same day, for the same hours, collectively making 26 hours on that same day,” Cotten said.

Longshoremen routinely compete for jobs and hours every day. Their benefits improve as they accumulate hours and reach certain benchmarks over the course of a year. Cotten insists the seven or eight “ghost workers” he unmasked in payroll records stretching back five years had a potentially dramatic effect on more than 300 legitimate longshoremen who try to accumulate hours loading and unloading ships one day at a time.

“Failure to reach 700 [annual hours] by one hour will mean hundreds or thousands of dollars over the course of a year and it will mean his seniority position, his work ranking, his health benefits and eventually, his pension benefit,” Cotten said.

The end result of “ghost workers” and other union practices, according to Cotten, is that the longshoremen pension fund for Local 1402 is woefully underfunded. He says that means there are a number of longshoremen still working the docks in their 70s and 80s because they can’t afford to retire on the local’s union pension. He showed us records indicating that administrative expenses for the Local 1402 pension fund in 2010 were $509,528, compared to employer contributions of $393,110 that same year.

ILA Local 1402 longshoreman Charles Gibson is 62 and says he’s one of the workers who can’t count on quitting anytime soon. “Retirement is not an option. Our pension plans are in real sad shape. I’ll probably work as long as I can,” Gibson said. “Something should be done about it.”

Fellow longshoreman Local 1402 member Danny Riley is even more embittered by the impact he believes “ghost workers” have had on his pay and benefits.

“This needs to be exposed,” Riley said. Riley’s concerns prompted him to write to Federal District Judge Steven Merryday in Tampa on April 14, expressing allegations of union wrongdoing.

Records show Merryday thanked Riley for his letter and turned it over to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tampa five days later. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says, like the Dept. of Labor, it does not confirm or deny ongoing investigations. Riley says that’s why he reached out to 8 on Your Side with the same letter of grievances he sent to Judge Merryday.

“The fraud and the corruption, the mismanagement, this hurts me as well as the rest of the men,” Riley said.

Riley tells us he voiced a similar corruption complaint to the Federal Department of Labor. That agency, which regulates unions like the ILA, sent us a statement saying that under a longstanding policy it “does not confirm or deny the existence of an open investigation.”

Meanwhile, a number of ILA 1402 members tell us they plan to attend tomorrow’s ILA hearing in Tampa where top union officials will attempt to deal with these issues internally. At that hearing, Harrell and other Local 1402 executive officers will have the chance to answer charges of “financial malpractice” filed by the ILA’s top ranking officials.  Riley insists he will be there and hopes to see justice done.

“That hurts me. That hurts the man behind me. That hurts the man in front of me,” Riley said.

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