Union officers have knowingly undermined the financial well-being of their members through deliberate acts of misinformation and misappropriation, according to ongoing litigation in two Pennsylvania-based lawsuits that could have a statewide impact.

In Philadelphia, members of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 22, claim their union officers took part in a decades-long scheme to boost pension benefits for themselves and their friends at the expense of rank-and-file workers. Meanwhile, former corrections officers in Huntingdon have accumulated extensive evidence of theft, forgery, and other acts of personal aggrandizement by union brass.

Both cases could significantly affect government unions that lack transparency, accountability, and fair representation. The lawsuits allege that union officers prioritized their self-interest above the public employees who comprise their collective bargaining unit.

In their class-action suit, the firefighters allege that union executives deceived them and their colleagues into surrendering thousands of dollars in annual pension benefits for decades. Court documents describe how this process occurred at the expense of at least 100 firefighters and their families.

As employees of the Philadelphia Fire Department, firefighters can sell back unused vacation time in exchange for additional pension benefits. Yet, this exchange can only occur within a limited period before their retirement. The firefighters claim their Local 22 representatives advised them not to sell back this time.

“Our clients allege that union officials have been deliberately and systematically providing harmful financial advice to city firefighters,” Nathan McGrath, president and general counsel for Fairness Center, said in a press release. “Rather than representing all firefighters fairly, union officials appear to have favored themselves and their friends over rank-and-file firefighters.”

The Fairness Center is a nonprofit, public-interest law firm specializing in and representing public employees seeking to defend their constitutional rights and challenge union practices at odds with fair representation.

The class-action suit asks the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas to restore firefighters’ lost pension benefits and hold union officials accountable for their failure to represent employees fairly. The case is in its preliminary stages, and likely, one which the court won’t decide for some time.

However, litigation involving the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association (PSCOA) is imminent. With oral argument set for March 12, the case, which will decide the union’s culpability for allegations of financial mismanagement, is currently on appeal before the Pennsylvania Superior Court in Harrisburg.

In February 2020, just a few weeks after the Fairness Center filed suit against PSCOA, state police arrested Bryan Peroni, the local union treasurer, on felony theft charges. Peroni pled guilty and he was sentenced for writing almost $30,000 in illegal checks to himself and another union official.

Court documents revealed a long history of questionable financial transactions by PSCOA, according to the Fairness Center’s website:

  • After PSCOA officials bought $60 shots and racked up $3,000 in bar tabs, the union finally instituted an alcohol spending policy in 2019.
  • In 2021, PSCOA found that former PSCOA President Jason Bloom and others made exorbitant purchases, including golf outings, Miami Dolphins tickets, thousands of dollars of Apple iTunes purchases, and a $12,000 Rolex watch, according to court filings.
  • Auditors found that PSCOA officials made personal purchases totaling more than $200,000 with union credit cards.
  • The union is also investigating the $1.8 million missing from a trust fund created and administered by PSCOA executive officers.
  • Current PSCOA President John Eckenrode acknowledged at a state union board meeting that local and state union spending has been a “touchy subject” and that “frivolous spending and outright theft” have been a problem “since the inception of PSCOA” nearly 20 years ago.

This past summer, state police arrested five former PSCOA officers on felony theft and other charges related to their alleged mishandling of union membership dues.

The former union members are seeking a refund of these misspent union dues. PSCOA, which represents 10,000 employees in 23 state prisons, has moved forward with reforms since the beginning of the litigation. Consequently, the union’s savings accounts experienced a sharp increase while membership dues decreased.

Kevin Mooney is the Senior Investigative Reporter at the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank, and writes for several national publications. X: @KevinMooneyDC

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