Accusations fly as second Robins union election approaches

wcrenshaw@macon.comMarch 15, 2014 

WARNER ROBINS -- A man found eavesdropping from a closet, ballots found in the trash, financial mismanagement, vandalism, death threats and a federal investigation are among claims swirling as Robins Air Force Base union members head back to the polls Tuesday.

Members of American Federation of Government Employees Local 987 will vote again to elect officers. An election in October put new officers in charge of the union, but the regional union office threw out the results after determining seven completed ballots were found in the trash.

The current officers say the decision was based on a shoddy investigation with the intent of giving the losing side a second chance to win. The U.S. Department of Labor is investigating whether the decision to overturn the election was justified, according to union secretary Eric Langston.

He said it’s unlikely the election will be stopped, but the Department of Labor could void the results if it deems October’s election should not have been overturned. The Department of Labor did not respond to a request to confirm the investigation.

A financial report conducted by an accounting firm following October’s election was recently mailed to every union member.

The report states from the start that it is not an audit and as such would not offer an opinion about the findings, but it makes several recommendations about changes in policy, including better documentation of credit card expenses.

In the Oct. 15 election, Robert Tidwell wrested the presidency from nine-year incumbent Tom Scott 441-310. A slate of candidates with Tidwell, advocating a better working relationship with management, won by similar margins.

Unusual occurrences

On Jan. 7, according to a Warner Robins Police Department report, the new union officers were at Union Hall when they heard a woman scream.

The woman, a union worker, had opened a closet and found a man inside. That man was Wilbert Ray Wessels Jr., who admitted he was there eavesdropping, the report stated. Wessels was a trustee defeated in the October election.

It was actually Wessels who called the police. When union members confronted him after he was discovered, he alleged Executive Vice President Charles Howard pushed him. Howard told police he didn’t, and no charges were filed against either man.

The report also states union members said surveillance equipment had previously been found in the building.

That’s not the only police report involving union members. On Dec. 20, Langston reported that pins on the front door had been pushed up but not out. He said it did not appear anyone had entered the building.

A Bibb County Sheriff’s Office incident report on Feb. 20 states that someone poured chewing tobacco spit on Tidwell’s wife’s vehicle at their home. According to the report, Tidwell said he believed it to be related to death threats he had received in Houston County from people opposed to his leadership of the union.

The mystery of the ballots

Following the October election, the losing side protested the results to the region office, citing 39 alleged violations.

Everett Kelley, the union’s Region 5 national vice president, dismissed all of those except one that alleged seven completed ballots were found in the trash at Union Hall. He called that troubling and said there was no way to determine how prevalent the problem may have been, so he ordered a new election.

The national president upheld the decision and also stated the election of the trustees wasn’t proper because the winners did not get a majority vote. The national president concluded that 22 uncounted ballots had been found.

The election was conducted by TrueBallot, a private company that conducts union elections across the country, including the election for national AFGE officers.

A letter from TrueBallot President John Seibel details the process in which ballots are issued and received, which includes a receipt for each ballot. He concludes by defending the integrity of the Local 987 election.

“Every voter’s ballot was deposited in the ballot box and counted,” he stated. “Any spoiled or voided ballots that were returned to TrueBallot for a new ballot were never intended to be counted and were not counted. The results of this election were and remain accurate.”

On March 5, Tidwell filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Labor-Management Standards. It asks for an immediate injunction to void the decision to overturn the October election and states the decision “was made in bad faith.”

It states the investigation was too incomplete to render a decision.

“One is left with the strong impression that the national president has ordered this rerun to simply afford the losing candidates a second opportunity to win rather than to fairly investigate and thereafter remedy an election irregularity,” the complaint stated. It also states the region office considered the complaint before it had been brought to the Local 987 Election Committee, contrary to the AFGE rules.

Kelley did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Differing opinions on accounting report

Shortly after taking office, the new union leaders asked the accounting firm of Clifton, Lipford, Hardison & Parker to look into union finances from Jan. 1, 2011, to Nov. 5, 2013. Their findings were mailed to union members Feb. 20.

Langston, the union secretary, declined to comment on the report. However, Ron Robertson, the union’s former vice president of maintenance who supports the new officers, said it at least shows financial mismanagement.

He said it indicates insufficient documentation of expenses, particularly with the use of union credit cards.

A letter from the new union leaders accompanying the report said new procedures are being put in place to address the concerns of the accountants.

Tony Crump, a union member and supporter of the former president, said he saw nothing in the report to be concerned about.

“I didn’t see anything in there that was illegal,” he said. “I know Tom (Scott), and I know with his integrity he goes by what the rules say.”

Crump said it’s Tidwell who has misspent money, including funds used to have the financial report done. He said the base finance office would have done that for free. He also said Tidwell has spent funds to renovate Union Hall that should be going to protect union members.

Tidwell did not show up for a scheduled interview and did not return subsequent phone calls.

The airing of grievances

Last May, retired Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon sparked an ongoing debate when he pointed out more grievances were being filed at Robins than at the other two Air Force maintenance depots combined.

He said it was his leading concern if there is a Base Realignment and Closure Commission. It became the central issue in the union election.

The previous union leadership dismissed his comments, while the new group shared his concerns and expressed a desire to bring down the number of grievances by improving communication with management.

According to Crump, the new officers’ desire to reduce grievances has meant members aren’t getting representation. He accused the group of tossing out grievances, which Langston denied.

“If you look at the direction and things Mr. Tidwell has done, it hasn’t been done representing union members. It’s been done representing management-type decisions,” Crump said.

Langston said there were 492 grievances filed in the previous fiscal year, which ended Oct. 1. In the first three months of the current fiscal year, he said 148 grievances have been filed.

That would put the union on track to have more grievances than it had last year. Langston said the new leadership has not discouraged anyone from filing a grievance but has sought to resolve problems before a grievance is filed.

“The grievance process is a good thing,” Langston said. “There are many, many legitimate grievances.”

Former president optimistic

Scott, the former president, agreed to respond to questions by email. He stated that he is optimistic about Tuesday’s election and said the financial report sent to members did not show any wrongdoing.

He said the inexperience of the new administration has cost the union money in training, and he criticized spending on social events for members.

“In our uncertain times to keep jobs on base, they should be more focused on securing jobs and workload,” he said.

Scott said following the election, he offered to help Tidwell learn procedures, and Tidwell did not respond.

Scott said during his time in office, union membership, finances and assets grew. He also pointed out that the on-time delivery rate for aircraft was 77 percent when he left office and dropped to 48 percent afterward. Base officials have said a major reason the rate has dropped is because of the loss of about 900 employees.

Scott said the current administration has been “making unfounded accusations about me to members of the community to make themselves look better.”

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