MARION — The Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 773, which has been the subject of scrutiny for its alleged involvement in events culminating in a housing crisis in Cairo, has been placed under "emergency trusteeship," according to a letter by LIUNA’s Washington, D.C.-based president, Terry O'Sullivan.
The action amounts to the national union assuming operational control of the Local. The letter from O'Sullivan, dated Sept. 1, is taped to the door of the Local 773’s administrative offices located in Marion on Ed Smith Way, a street named for the founder’s son, Edward Smith, originally of Cairo, who rose through the LIUNA ranks and became a Democratic Party player on the state and national scene.
The Local 773 represents about 4,200 workers nationally, including about 2,000 local government employees and private sector laborers, primarily in the construction industry, in Southern Illinois. In the public sphere, the Local 773 represents a variety of city, county, courthouse and housing authority employees across multiple counties regionally, according to information a union representative previously provided to the newspaper.
The housing crisis and related issues that union insiders say has led to chaos in the union hall is not discussed in the letter. Rather, O'Sullivan, who oversees a national union that represents half a million people through numerous local chapters, wrote in the letter that the trusteeship is necessary “due to the breakdown in governance, leadership and democratic procedures brought upon by recent events.”
O'Sullivan describes those five events as follows:
1. Multiple reports of the business manager carrying firearms and ammunition in a threatening manner at the local union hall and while on official union business, causing others to also carry firearms while attending union meetings;
2. Reports that the local union staff are fearful and intimidated;
3. The resignation by the business manager, under pressure, from his positions on multiple trust funds affiliated with the local union;
4. Improper financial conduct and/or reporting by more than one member of the executive board;
5. Disarray and lack of cooperation between members of the current executive board.
The letter states that the aim of the trusteeship is to restore democratic procedures, protect the local union as an institution, and correct any financial malpractice or other problems that may be impeding the local in its ability to properly function and serve the membership.
Though not mentioned by name in the letter, the business manager who was removed from his position by LIUNA's general president is Kevin Starr. Starr, who has been affiliated with the union for decades, declined comment to the newspaper when contacted Thursday. Starr also is, or was, the treasurer of the Southern and Central Illinois Laborers’ Political League, a political arm of the union. It was not immediately clear to the newspaper whether Starr was also removed from the campaign committee.
John F. Penn, LIUNA’s vice president and Midwest regional manager, has been appointed as trustee of the Local 773, according to the letter. Robert Shroeder, special international representative and Ross Manuel, international representative, have been named deputy trustees. Per union rules, the trustees are authorized to take full charge of the affairs of the Local 773 and protect its membership.
O'Sullivan’s letter concludes by stating that all Local 773 members will be notified of a date, time and place for a hearing to be conducted by a special hearings panel of the General Executive Board to consider whether the trusteeship action was justified “by an emergency” in accordance with the International Union Constitution.
Starr is the only union officer whose removal from the Local 773 is mentioned in the letter. Though, other union officers are facing legal or administrative actions against them for alleged wrongdoing.
The Local 773’s website listing its officers has not changed with the issuance of the letter. Matthew Smith, who is the son of Edward Smith, holds the position of president of the Local 773. Matthew Smith, of Tamms, has a pending felony domestic assault in the second degree case in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri. A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for Monday. Police allege Smith, on the evening of Aug. 10, 2016, threw a rock at the head of his then-financee while taking her phone and throwing it in a bush to keep her from calling for help as he drove away.
A probable cause statement says that the woman told police at the time of the August 2016 incident that about a year earlier, she suffered a broken neck from Smith kicking her in the head after an argument. The Aug. 10, 2016, arrest of Smith for alleged domestic violence was his second such arrest in roughly two years. Union County Police accused him on the night of July 18, 2014, of breaking into his then-girlfriend’s home near Anna, pulling her off her bed and tossing her into a wall. (The Aug. 10, 2016 case and the July 18, 2014, case involved two different women, according to the court records.) In the Union County case, Smith was charged with two felony charges of criminal trespass and criminal damage to property in excess of $300 and misdemeanor domestic battery.
A plea deal was negotiated in which the original charges were dropped and Smith pleaded guilty to only an added misdemeanor charge of criminal damage to property. Under the terms of his probation, which is being readdressed in light of his arrest in Cape Girardeau, Smith also was ordered to undergo counseling, including for substance abuse, and pay nearly $20,000 in restitution toward medical costs and repairs to the victim and her family. The court record associated with this case included a bill from the victim’s health insurer, Blue Cross, Blue Shield. It showed more than $13,000 in medical costs related to treatment of her injuries.
The special prosecutor who handled the case, Massac County State’s Attorney Patrick Windhorst, told the newspaper in late 2015 that, in his legal opinion, there was strong evidence to prosecute Smith for the domestic battery charge, and that he dismissed the charge only at the request of the victim. The woman later changed her mind and wanted to move forward with the charge, but Windhorst said the plea deal had already been offered and that it was too late to change course by time she made her intentions known. Windhorst was assigned as a special prosecutor in the case after Union County State’s Attorney Tyler Edmonds recused himself because of a conflict of interest. Edmonds is Smith’s brother-in-law.
Additionally, Local 773 Treasurer John Price is facing federal debarment. Housing and Urban Development, which is administering the Alexander County Housing Authority in administrative receivership, sought the administrative action against Price in July.
Price was a member of the ACHA’s board until January 2015, and for years also simultaneously acted as a union representative for the ACHA employees represented in collective bargaining by the Local 773. In seeking the three-year debarment, HUD claimed this represented a conflict of interest. HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said on Wednesday, in an emailed statement, that the administrative action is still pending and that there are no updates at this point.
A debarment is an administrative action that prevents an individual from participating in programs that involve federal funds. HUD also has the ability to apply fines if the debarment is successful. In addition to the action taken against Price, HUD is seeking the indefinite debarment of former ACHA executive directors James Wilson and Martha Franklin. Also, HUD has dismissed all union workers of the ACHA, saying the ACHA can not afford the pay and benefits that were previously negotiated. The positions were readvertised, though most part time and all non-union. In response, the Local 773 filed an unfair labor practice complaint, which is pending before the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
Also, The Local 773’s in-house counsel, Paul Prendergast, left the union earlier this year after he pleaded guilty to felony aggravated drunken driving. Prendergast was arrested and charged in June 2016 with two felony counts of aggravated drunken driving, as well as possession of drug paraphernalia and possession of less than 2.5 grams of cannabis, both misdemeanor charges. All but the felony aggravated DUI charge were dismissed in the plea deal Prendergast accepted in April.
Prendergast told the newspaper in June, in an emailed statement, that he voluntarily left the union at that time because he did “not want to give the local another ‘black eye.’”
“Local 773 has done so much good outside of their important work representing the men and women who have no other voice or redress with their employers,” he said, noting the union’s charity work in the region. He also said the Local 773, and specifically Starr, the outstated general manager, gave him a second chance when he needed one. “I felt, and still feel that my resignation from the Executive Board, retirement from the Local, retirement from the practice of law and subsequent plea to the DUI charge was the right course of action,” he wrote to the newspaper.
The newspaper has never been successful at reaching Matthew Smith or his attorneys, and several calls to his father, Edward Smith, also have gone unreturned. A representative of LIUNA in Washington did not immediately have further comment about the letter from O'Sullivan, the union’s general manager. She directed the newspaper to send an email to the union’s communication team.
This story will be updated if more information becomes available.