Recently released credit card statements detail the past spending of the longtime leader of California’s largest employee union, showing she spent nearly $ 7,000 on gifts for union leaders and thousands of dollars in international travel for union purposes.
Documents show former SEIU Local 1000 president Yvonne Walker donated $ 4,500 to Disney Resorts as part of the biggest gift to an outgoing officer, $ 5,700 for a flight to Tel Aviv for a work event and $ 159 for a celebration at the Device Brewing Company of Sacramento, along with other expenses. .
Expenses are identified over six years of credit card statements put online two weeks ago by Richard Louis Brown, who beat Walker and four other candidates in the May election for union president. Brown, who pledged transparency during his campaign, released his own statements as well as those of former officers.
All the expenses were potentially justifiable, according to a nonprofit tax expert, but the details provided new evidence for both sides in a bitter stalemate within the union, where a slim majority of the 65 members of the board of directors of the organization held a meeting and a vote to strip Brown of his leadership powers. Brown called the meeting illegitimate, citing a union policy that meetings must be called by the president and retained his managerial powers.
Brown notably criticized the freebies during a meeting Wednesday night that he broadcast live on Facebook.
âA lot of you are really upset about this, and you should be,â he said.
The wealth of spending records opens a window into how Walker led the organization in the second half of his 13 years in office. Walker wielded political influence on Capitol Hill, but also frustrated some state employees who wanted Local 1000 to focus on member pay and benefits. The union represents nearly 100,000 state employees and has an annual budget of approximately $ 48 million.
Records identify the Disney charge as a gift to former Vice President Margarita Maldonado. This was done at the end of May 2018, about a week after Maldonado lost his candidacy for re-election.
Neither Walker nor Maldonado responded to voicemail messages regarding the expenses.
IRS Rules require the tax-exempt organization to spend its money in a way that benefits members, not themselves.
“You and I are paying more taxes to allow them to be tax exempt, so they have a responsibility to the public to act appropriately and ethically,” said Joan Harrington, who teaches corporate law at non-profit at the Faculty of Law of the University of Santa Clara. âThey have an added burden as a tax-exempt organization. “
Gifts are identified in worksheet entries for most of Walker’s time based spending. Included is a theft of $ 524 to Ontario for former union vice-president Tamekia Robinson, who also lost her re-election in May 2018.
A fee of $ 1,725 ââand $ 78 at the Meritage Resort in Napa is also identified as gifts, although the recipient is not identified.
Former Vice President Theresa Taylor, who was not re-elected in 2018, said Walker offered her the trip at the end of her term. Taylor, who is currently a union board member, said she was unaware the trip was charged to a union credit card.
Walker and other officials put several other retirement gifts on the cards, valued at up to around $ 400. Those giveaways included tickets to events and celebrations at Device Brewing and the Blue Cue Bar and Restaurant in Sacramento, according to the spreadsheets.
âIt was ‘thank you for the service’, basically, to the union,â Taylor said.
Walker then hired Maldonado as the union’s chief of staff, where in 2019 his base salary was around $ 156,000, according to the union’s Form 990.
Flights, hotels, meals
Union leaders billed around $ 4.7 million on the 2015 cards at the end of Walker’s tenure in June. The total includes charges on individual senior executive credit cards and a corporate card with a $ 100,000 line of credit that was used to pay for major union events. The cards do not take into account all of the organization’s expenses.
The vast majority of the money was spent on flights, hotels and meals for leaders, board members and union members. Records identify most of these accusations as supporting town halls, organizational efforts, political events, employment contracts, staff pensions and statewide conventions.
The cards identify regular working lunches at restaurants near the union headquarters on 18th Street – such as Burgers and Brew, Mas Taco Bar, Iron Horse Tavern and South – as well as meals at union events elsewhere.
Records show Walker paid for parking when she met former Attorney General Xavier Becerra for breakfast on May 25, 2018, as California waited a month longer for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. late in a critical lawsuit known as Janus against AFSCME. The court ruling deprived unions of the ability to collect dues from non-members, depriving unions like Local 1000 of millions of dollars in revenue.
They identify Lyft flights and journeys for Walker and a union lobbyist to meet with former California Labor Secretary Julie Su in Southern California in January 2020.
The records also identify flight costs and expenses for events in other states, such as the SEIU international conventions and the Women’s March in Washington, DC in January 2017. Several flights across the country have exceeded 1,000 $.
Expenses include a A $ 5,700 round-trip flight for Walker from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv in July 2018, identified as being related to a California Federation of Labor delegation to Israel. An additional charge of $ 1,000 was related to the trip, including a round-trip flight from Sacramento to Los Angeles, according to the records.
Steve Smith, spokesperson for the California Federation of Labor, said international travel is rare but valuable opportunities for California union leaders.
âThe advantage is that we live in a global economy, so understanding as much as possible how other unions work and building solidarity with the international union community benefits everyone,â Smith said.
Some expenses are identified as supporting other organizations, such as a $ 555 fee in March 2018 to provide five phones to Housing 4 Sacramento, an organization that describes itself on its Facebook page as a “community coalition of tenants, housing advocates. and workers working to raise awareness of tenants’ rights and advocate for better and more stable housing.
Walker advocated a broad view of the union as a force to help uplift all workers. The union has been involved in the fight for a minimum wage of $ 15 and has been involved in public policy decisions about housing costs in Sacramento and elsewhere. She made statements in favor of Black Lives Matter at racing events last year.
Tax exemption for trade unions
Public charities, governed by section 501 (c) (3) of the IRS, can spend money to take donors and others to expensive meals under federal tax law. They can also cover flights and accommodation for organizational support activities.
Unions are less limited than charities in how they can spend their money under section 501 (c) (5), said Eric Gorovitz, senior counsel at Adler and Colvin, a San Francisco-based firm and specializing in non-profit law.
While charities must provide a public benefit, unions are formed specifically to benefit their members, Gorovitz said.
Gorovitz declined to discuss Local 1000 expenses directly, given the limited information posted online, but said a wide range of expenses – potentially including things like gifts or dry cleaning – could be justified depending on the circumstances.
Taylor said the union did not have a written policy for the cards. She said that during his tenure as an officer, the comptroller of the organization reviewed many expenses. The union board does not approve individual purchases on the cards, but the expenses are accounted for in the budgets the board approves, Taylor said.
Some expenses may need to be declared as taxable compensation, he said. In these cases, the items would be grouped together with other offsets on the Form 990.
âThey might pay for some expenses that might at first appear personal,â he said. âJust because an exempt organization’s credit card was used for expenses that, in most cases, are personal does not necessarily mean there was wrongdoing. ”
He also noted that some expenses could have been reimbursed.
This story was originally published 3 December 2021 5:00 a.m.