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King Richard

Christopher Gardner

Union Dues and Don'ts: The Correctional Peace Officers Association, under the leadership of Richard Abbate, has become a political and legal battlefield.

The hard-nosed head of the county jail guards union is a master of winning through intimidation: If old-fashioned kick-ass politicking won't do it, he'll sue.

By Will Harper

IN UNION BOSS Richard Abbate's mind, the enemy is coming at him from both directions. On the outside, Department of Corrections management refuses to meet his demands. Inside the union, his critics, "the kiss-asses," assault him.

Abbate doesn't take kindly either to management or kiss-asses. The latter, in Abbate's view, "lie, steal or cheat" to get in good with their bosses--they'd even help bust the union Abbate helped create. But Abbate knows how to deal with management brown-nosers. He bullies and intimidates. He runs right over his opponents when he can, and when he can't, he calls his lawyer. He has sued or threatened legal action against not only county brass but also his own union members.

During a long, fruitless fight to improve the pay and status of the guards who work at the county jail, Abbate has made many enemies. But his kick-ass style has also won him support: The 38-year-old union president has been reelected twice over five years to the 650-member Santa Clara County Correctional Peace Officers Association. By his count, he has also survived nine recall attempts.

"I don't cater to the loudmouth minority," he proclaims. "I cater to the democratic majority."

His style, however, hasn't won a new contract for the jail guards, whose deal with the county expired six years ago.

The union's failure to get a deal inked has come despite Abbate's full-time attention. He spends hardly any time at the jails working as a guard anymore. This year, he's spent all but four work days doing union business.

Fielding a flood of embarrassing questions from his cell phone while en route to a union gig in Sacramento, Abbate laments his membership's lack of loyalty. Don't these people realize he's busting his butt to make their lives better? A spate of dissension is coming at a very inconvenient and critical time--with the sheriff's office taking over some jail operations and the CPOA lobbying the Legislature in Sacramento to get peace-officer status.

Abbate looks upon his membership with a sort of Leninist paternalism--he believes the rank-and-file don't always understand that their leaders know what's best for them. "I think some of my members are too stupid to act on factual situations first instead of their emotions," he confides.

A Tiny Majority

CORRECTIONAL officer Robert Durr says that at 2:45pm on April 21, he found out there was going to be a special union meeting that night. Union leaders had called the meeting four days before. Durr couldn't go. He had to pick up friends from the Oakland airport.

Less than 10 percent of the overall membership turned out for the hastily arranged meeting. Union leaders told them that they wanted to launch a $300,000 media campaign targeting Abbate's newest enemy, state Sen. John Vasconcellos. Abbate was furious at Vasconcellos for killing a bill that would have transformed jail guards' legal status from that of glorified security guards into full-fledged peace officers. That would have allowed them to carry guns off-duty. Abbate called Vasconcellos a "spineless" politician who would cave in under pressure.

The 60 members who showed up voted unanimously to pass an assessment that would take $400 out of every member's paycheck over a nine-month period to go after Vasconcellos.

When news of the assessment spread, many union members complained that they didn't know about the meeting. Durr came in on his off days to circulate a petition that would force a vote of the full membership.

"I thought everybody should have a chance to vote, especially with [$400] coming out of their paychecks," Durr explains. Many others apparently felt the same way. Over the next three weeks, Durr collected signatures from 153 correctional officers--more than twice as many people as had originally voted for the assessment--to force a referendum. Or so it seemed.

Abbate refused to honor the petition. He and his cohorts claimed people had been "coerced and duped" into signing. Abbate says correctional officers came to him and voluntarily withdrew their signatures. Others, however, needed some persuasion--some removed their signatures from the petition after union leaders explained that they could all be laid off if the move for peace-officer status failed.

Abbate says that he also found one forged signature and several invalid signatures from officers not in good standing with the union. As a result, he says, the petition didn't have enough signatures to force a referendum.

Durr was incredulous. The union's bylaws said nothing about withdrawing signatures from a referendum petition. He says he knows nothing about a forged signature. He adamantly denies coercing or duping anyone. All the petition would have done is let everyone have a chance to vote, Durr says.

Officers who signed the petition speculate that Abbate feared the consequences of a referendum on the political campaign: An earlier proposed assessment had failed.

Following the controversy, Abbate told the most disgruntled petitioners--whom he says are union-busters and pawns of the rival Deputy Sheriffs' Association--that if they didn't want to pay the $400, they had a remedy: "get the hell out" of the union. According to the county controller's office, 45 union members quit the CPOA in June. "I'm glad that small minority of the membership has gotten the hell out," Abbate says, "because they're part of the problem."

Playing Their Dues

CORRECTIONAL OFFICER Mary Sheffield fits the profile of what Abbate calls his "problem children." While kibitzing at work with some colleagues, she dropped a bomb about union treasurer Ed Meyers. Apparently, she said, Meyers took a vacation to Mexico while on union-funded "release time," where labor officials are granted time off with pay by the county from their regular jail guard jobs to do union business. But Meyers didn't do any work while south of the border. Sheffield openly questioned the propriety of taking a pleasure trip while being paid by the union.

On July 9, 1997, Sheffield got a faxed letter from union boss Abbate, threatening to "take appropriate legal action" against Sheffield if she didn't "cease and desist" making defamatory comments about Meyers. According to Abbate, Sheffield told other officers that Meyers had committed fraud and was a criminal. Sheffield, who left the union in June, denies ever calling Meyers a criminal.

Metro paged Meyers to ask if the story was true. Abbate returned the page instead. He confirmed that Meyers had spent three days in Mexico during paid leave without doing union work. Abbate defended the trip, saying that Meyers previously had spent vacation time doing union business. "It was time the CPOA owed to him," Abbate explains.

Abbate says that CPOA officials, including himself, have for years used their vacation time to work on union business because the 30­45 days the county allots union executives annually isn't enough. Abbate argues that because the CPOA is a relatively small union with only one part-time office manager, the president and board members must put in a lot of hours. According to the county's labor relations office, the CPOA has spent more than $70,000 to buy more "release time," in order to pay Abbate, Meyers and vice president William Calabrese to take extra time off from their jobs. (By contrast, the CPOA's rival, the Deputy Sheriffs' Association, has purchased no extra release time for its executives over the past two years, according to county officials.) County records show that the CPOA has arranged to pay for two more months of release time for its three top executives.

In a previous effort to make time for his union work, Abbate took a six-month leave of absence in 1995 from his jail-guard job. He was then hired by the union as a consultant making an estimated $5,800 a month--while still serving as president.

Vanguard's Vendettas

IN ADDITION TO CHARGES that Abbate and his allies have misused union funds and abused their executive privileges, the union boss is also well-known for his fierce retaliation.

In 1993, three female jail guards filed sexual harassment complaints against Abbate. His response: he sued them.

The women accused Abbate of leering and making sexually suggestive remarks. One woman claimed Abbate rolled a pair of metal balls in his hand and asked her if she wanted to play with his balls. As a result of the three complaints, the county suspended Abbate for 10 days without pay.

Abbate is presently suing his accusers for slander, using union funds to pay for his legal fees, he says. He argues that the harassment allegations were false and politically motivated, intended to ruin his reputation and bring him down as union president.

In court papers, Sharon Kirsch, a lawyer representing all three of the women, asked Superior Court Judge John Flaherty to stop Abbate's "campaign of terror." The judge threw out Abbate's complaint but allowed union lawyer Doug Allen to file a new version. Allen, son of the late Superior Court Judge Bruce Allen, did that in July, and the union is still paying for Abbate's legal expenses to sue the female correctional officers.

In another case, Abbate filed criminal charges against a friend-turned-foe for allegedly stealing $8,000 in union money. Investigators later cleared Marcin Gruczecki, who had tried to run against Abbate for president, of any criminal wrongdoing, calling the matter a contractual dispute. Abbate even threatened to take legal action against DOC Director Daniel Vasquez if the jails chief didn't warn Gruczecki to stop making defamatory comments about Abbate's dual role as union president and paid consultant.

Even Metro didn't escape Abbate's penchant for legal intimidation. As this article was being written, union attorney Doug Allen demanded that Metro not print financial information from the organization's 1995 $1 million general fund budget, which shows that the union spent almost $250,000 for legal expenses. The year-end budget document also shows that CPOA executives spent more than $65,000 on travel and meals.

Meet The New Boss

ABBATE LIKES TO TELL his critics that if they don't like the job he's doing, they shouldn't vote for him. Better yet, run against him and offer an alternative, he says.

A former police detective in Honolulu, Abbate rose through union ranks in Santa Clara County as a reformer. In 1991 he led a successful recall of the entire CPOA board, accusing them of being in bed with management, vying for promotions to the detriment of the union. He and other jail guards took then­DOC director Frank Hall to court, and Hall eventually resigned. Having taken out the leadership in management and the union, Abbate won the presidency in 1992.

When the reformer took over, turmoil inside the union didn't cease. Many union members grew disenchanted with Abbate; they complained that he was accountable to no one. In 1995, a dozen officers invited representatives of Laborers' International Union of North America, Local 270 to come in and mount a takeover of the CPOA.

According to Wayne Palica, an organizer for Local 270 at the time, about 225 correctional officers signed blue cards expressing interest in switching over to his union. Palica recalls that at first Abbate expressed a willingness to do whatever the membership wanted. But when it looked like there was a real interest in switching to Local 270, Abbate and CPOA leaders fought back and ultimately prevailed.

Since then, Abbate has had more than ticked-off union members to placate. He now is backpedaling furiously from his earlier taunting of Sen. Vasconcellos. The union chief now says he regrets lambasting Vasco, the chair of the powerful criminal procedures committee. Abbate insists there will be no attack campaign against Vasconcellos as previously advertised; instead, the union and its lobbyists are going to "educate" the senator as to why correctional officers need to carry guns off-duty for their personal safety.

Abbate says he knows how to compromise, but nothing in his tenure suggests flexibility--after all, he's been unable to secure a contract for the union during his entire presidency. And it's hard to imagine the CPOA successfully persuading Vasconcellos with reasoned arguments. That would take a little ass-kissing, and Richard Abbate doesn't kiss ass. He kicks it.

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From the August 21-27, 1997 issue of Metro.

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