Teamsters report alleges corruption at Local 120

Tim Nelson
Minnesota Public Radio
November 27, 2012

Teamsters members in Minnesota are waiting for the next shoe to drop in a union scandal that has removed the top leadership from Blaine-based Teamsters Local 120.

A report by the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Review Board (IRB) alleged widespread corruption by the union's top leaders, including Secretary Treasurer Brad Slawson, and his son, President Brad Slawson, Jr.

"There is evidence that the Secretary Treasurer and President are corrupt and incompetent, the Local is engaged in financial malpractice and not being conducted in the best interests of the members," according to a report to International Brotherhood of Teamsters president James Hoffa.

The report from the IRB alleges the pair may have diverted union funds to a relative, bought tens of thousands of dollars in season hockey, football and baseball tickets with members' money and created sham union benefit programs.

The IRB is a three-member panel established by the federal court in New York City in 1991, following a series of Teamsters corruption scandals in the 1980s. It has investigatory authority and can get subpoenas to collect evidence and take sworn testimony.

Neither Slawson nor his son responded to inquiries about the report from MPR News. The relative, bar manager Todd Chester, also did not respond to questions about the allegations. None faces any criminal charges yet.

The Slawsons have been removed from any official union functions since Nov. 13, when the International Brotherhood of Teamsters put the local in emergency trusteeship. That came four days after the report from the IRB.

The 139-page document lays out a catalog of alleged corruption, arguing the Slawsons had been engaged in years of questionable business and personal activity at the union for years.

Among the allegations:

• The pair got the union to abruptly change direction on a Teamsters Local 120 office construction project, changing builders and prompting a $90,000 payment to Todd Chester, then a local bar manager. He was a close friend of Slawson Jr. and was the father of one of Slawson Sr.'s grandchildren, according to the IRB report.

• Local 120 leadership dipped into the union's strike fund to pay for the construction project.

• The local ran a money-losing bar in Fargo, N.D., which also personally paid union leaders tens of thousands of dollars. The Local 120 also hired the same Todd Chester as a part time consultant for the bar and provided him with health benefits.

• More than $200,000 worth of liquor and beer was unaccounted for in 2010 and 2011 at the Fargo bar.

• Local 120 leadership signed a promotional agreement with an insurance broker, American Pride, and signed a sham representation agreement with the firm to make it appear a union company. Union leaders then allowed the company to pitch its products, like life insurance, to members at Teamsters meetings.

• Union leadership bought season tickets for the Minnesota Wild, the Minnesota Vikings, the Minnesota Twins and the University of Minnesota Gophers hockey team, but left scant record of who got the seats. A five-year review showed only six recorded instances of Twins tickets going to union members at union meetings.

• Union leaders falsely claimed meal and drink expenses on Teamsters credit cards. The expenses were allegedly billed to the union — including a bar bill for the Slawson Jr. during a contested union election.

• Slawson Jr. ran unsuccessfully in 2008 to be a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Bills from local printers for his personal campaign materials (used at the state DFL convention in Rochester) went unpaid, but Slawson Jr. allegedly offered to steer union printing business to the shops if they would write off the debt.

Some Teamsters like Eric Bucholz, a warehouse worker for SuperValu, say the local leadership has long been insular and resistant to change.

"It's been a good-old-boys club for years and years," Bucholz said in an interview about the charges. "It was really hard to get anybody out of there."

He also said he thinks there may be more to come for Local 120. "We really don't know how far down this thievery is going to go. How many people in the hall knew about it? If they start going through all the credit cards, how far back does this go? How many people were involved in this stuff?"

He says he's particularly concerned because the Teamsters contract with Supervalu is set to expire in June, and it isn't clear who will be able to bargain with the beleaguered grocery supplier. Supervalu announced last week it was freezing pay and cut the company 401(k) match for non-union employees.

Other Teamsters in Minnesota say they hope authorities pursue indictments against union leadership for the alleged corruption detailed in the IRB report.

"It's criminal," says David Kramer, a Teamster member from Local 320, another unit that represents 11,000 public employee workers around the state. Both Local 120 and Local 320 belong to Joint Council 32, an affiliation of 13 Teamsters unions in the upper Midwest.

Kramer is also a member of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a group of union members that advocate for reform among the Teamsters nationwide. He says corruption like that alleged in Local 120 hurts the union effort overall.

"A lot of people are going to be angry about this," Kramer says. "It pisses people off that their dues money is going where it isn't supposed to be going."

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