By Ken Stone
San Diego labor leader Mickey Kasparian fired the dissident vice president of his food workers union Monday morning, and the union’s comptroller resigned hours later.
The actions came as critics geared up for a Monday evening protest at Kasparian’s Mission Valley offices — UFCW Local 135. They also come amid disclosure of documents that suggest as much as $670,000 in union dues went to a private legal settlement with one of Kasparian’s female accusers.
According to Todd Walters, who had been vice president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 and its grievance director, Kasparian offered no reason for his firing.“He walked into my office [about 9:15 a.m.], with another representative — another goon to stand there — and all he simply said was I’ve been terminated and here’s my check,” Walters said in a phone interview.
Meanwhile, Brian Kelly quit his Local 135 job as comptroller, Walters said. Times of San Diego’s phone request to speak to Kelly was forwarded to the voice mail of Francine Woods, Kasparian’s secretary and executive board recorder.
In a November 2017 deposition in the case of Kasparian sex accuser Isabel Vasquez, the Mira Mesa High School graduate said he had been Local 135’s comptroller — a CPA-licensed accountant — for 16 years.
Asked why Kelly resigned, Walters said: “There was a building frustration regarding the manipulation of both the staff and the members to keep Mickey in power.”
Walters says more office firings or resignations are possible.
Kasparian did not respond to a request for comment on the departures. Neither did Local 135 Secretary-Treasurer Richard Barrera nor Lori Kern, the union’s communications director.
Earlier, Walters, 51, said in a Facebook post that “it is clear” he was terminated for speaking out about a once-pending merger vote — originally set for Monday.
“You, the members, won a huge battle by stopping the merger vote,” the Vistan wrote. “But now Mickey is afraid that more of you will keep asking questions and become more involved in our union going forward.”
A Local 135 member for 13 years and executive board member for two, Walters said a petition drive has been launched demanding a “fair election” for president. Under UFCW Local 135 bylaws, Kasparian has to call an election before his term ends in December.
“Michael ‘Mickey’ Kasparian has been allowed to abuse his power and misuse union funds for too long,” the petition said. “Within the last year Mickey Kasparian settled four lawsuits against him: gender discrimination, wrongful termination, quid pro quo sexual harassment and gender violence. Union members were handed the bill, lawyer fees and settlements were paid using our union funds.”[contextly_sidebar id=”LRwn4HIsTWOQygtPX2d2lK9zs0JWdHng”]Walters and Kelly were both making $116,000 a year with the union, according to the local’s latest Department of Labor filings. (Kasparian’s pay is $215,000, not including compensation as the newly re-elected vice president of the international union based in Washington, D.C.)
Kasparian apparently was set to preserve his leadership status via a merger of Local 135 and Local 1167 of San Bernardino and Riverside counties. But a vote scheduled this week was called off when Local 1167’s president resigned for health reasons.
Kasparian said the merger vote was postponed but didn’t give a new date.
The longtime Democratic Party influencer and fundraiser has been the subject of criticism amid a series of lawsuits by three female ex-employees and a county worker. But the suits were settled out of court with nondisclosure agreements.
Kasparian contends that Local 135’s insurance carrier paid for the legal settlements of four women who alleged sex harassment, gender discrimination and wrongful termination (among other claims).
In a text message last week, Kasparian disputed the interpretation of annual Department of Labor LM-2 filings and monthly internal financial reports — which Walters says proves Melody Godinez’s settlement of a gender violence lawsuit was paid with union dues.
“Seriously? Do you realize we spend a lot (of) money on legal fees to represent our members on a day to day basis?” Kasparian said Wednesday. “We surplussed over $430,000 for 2017 and have already surplussed more than $200,000 for 2018 — your years in question. We have over $12 million in the bank.”
Kasparian closed his note by saying: “We are as financially secure a union as there is. Report the facts.”
Walters, however, says the Godinez lawsuit was not covered by insurance — that the carrier denied the claim because she was neither an employee nor a Local 135 member. (She was a deputy county clerk and member of SEIU Local 221.)
Godinez alleged (and Kasparian has denied) a series of six sexual assaults between May 2014 and early 2016.
- UFCW Local 135 LM-2 report to Department of Labor for 2016
- UFCW Local 135 LM-2 report to Department of Labor for 2017
- UFCW Local 135 monthly financial reports for the first five months of 2018
Her December 2017 lawsuit, settled Feb. 20, included an accusation that Kasparian tried to arrange a three-woman sex encounter in an “opulent” suite at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront.
Walters said Monday that Kasparian is “stretching it” when he says day-to-day legal costs account for a $670,255 gap between legal expenses paid and reimbursed via insurance.
“January, February and March — those pretty much were the only three months where we had legal fees from the lawsuits, because the lawsuits were settled in February,” Walters said. “And by March we had the final bills come in. For him to say that that’s normal is incorrect. It’s not normal.”
By April, he said, legal fees dropped “to where they should be” — $20,000 a month.
A review of San Diego Superior Court cases involving UFCW Local 135 found mostly small-claims filings, and almost all have long been settled. In federal court, at least two suits against Local 135 have been settled in recent years, including one in 2016 by Jeanne and John Whalen, painters of the removed meat-cutter mural at the union’s I-8 freeway-facing building.
Walters declined to say how much Local 135 paid to settle the Godinez suit, but he suggested the executive board approval of the deal came amid severe pressure from Kasparian, who won consent of “eboard” members via separate phone calls.
Walters says he thinks comptroller Kelly was “as equally disgusted as I was on how the eboard … voted on it.”
After an updated version of this story was posted, Kasparian said Monday night via email: “If I was you I would pull this. While I’m restricted by a confidentially (sic) agreement. It is a blatant lie!!!!”
According to a summary of revenues and expenses prepared by Walters, Local 135 spent $1.13 million on “lawsuit fees” in 2017 and 2018. But insurance reimbursed only $467,000 of that.
In April, the UFCW International union’s general counsel said union dues could be used to defend the local — calling such payments “normal, appropriate, approved. And we have no evidence to the contrary.”
The Washington-based union did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the latest events or allegations, however.
Is use of member dues for a union officer’s private settlement illegal?
A Department of Labor spokesman in April would only say that federal law provides safeguards for union finances.
“LMRDA section 501(c) provides potential criminal penalties for unauthorized union expenditures,” said Leo Kay of the agency’s San Francisco office, adding that section 503(b) provides that unions and employers shall not, “directly or indirectly pay the fine of any officer or employee convicted of any willful violation” of the Labor-Management Reporting and Disclosure Act.
In any case, Kasparian is crippled, Walters contends.
“He’s lost all of his political pull,” he said of the labor leader, who he’s known since 1991 when they both took meat-cutting classes at San Diego City College. “And now he’s about to lose his control of the union. And he’s getting desperate.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo captioned as Todd Walters but showing someone else.
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