Lawyer: SEIU could face racketeering suit

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Associated Press
Protestors march through the downtown streets chanting Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006 in Houston, as part of the ongoing janitors strike. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

Houston — The attorney for a janitorial company that won a multimillion-dollar defamation verdict against the Service Employees International Union of Texas said that the national SEIU organization could face a racketeering suit based on their actions, liking the union to “the mob.”

“We think the national union here is Geppetto, if you will. They are the ones pulling all the strings,” attorney John Zavitsanos said. “One of the things I think would be an interesting thing to look at is the potential for some kind of racketeering charge against them because this isn’t a couple of bad apples that are doing this.”

Zavitsanos is the attorney for Houston-based Professional Janitorial Service. PJS successfully sued SEIU Texas, alleging that the SEIU’s intrusive and threatening “Justice for Janitors” campaign went too far and and that the union wrongly claimed the firm had violated labor laws concerning wages and overtime. The union now owes PJS $7.8 million.

SEIU Texas filed for bankruptcy in December, saying it couldn’t afford to pay — something that Zavitsanos said is a red herring.

“The international has tons of money. They donate tens of millions of dollars every year to political causes and candidates,” Zavitsanos said. “We have a situation where they tried to extinguish a business. They can absolutely absorb this… but they’re fighting us tooth and nail.”

The SEIU represents nearly 2 million government workers, healthcare employees and janitors. It boasts an annual budget of $300 million, making it the nation’s second-largest union and certainly one of the most powerful.

But it’s unclear if the SEIU will have the same war chest this year.

The SEIU is planning for a 30 percent budget cut over the next year, according to a report published by Bloomberg Businessweek in late December.

Zavitsanos said the national SEIU didn’t just use questionable tactics in Houston. They’ve been doing it all over the country, he said.

“This is, in fact, the playbook that they run as mandated — not just authorized — but mandated by the national office where they tell their people you need to evaluate if we should follow the law; you need to try to take away customers from respectable businesses; you need to make them hurt economically,” he said.

Hence, he said he believes the national SEIU may face RICO charges or a civil RICO lawsuit.

RICO is the acronym for the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act, a law aimed at organized crime that can be used to prosecute leaders within a criminal enterprise who direct underlings to carry out the dirty work.

The Washington D.C.-based national SEIU did not respond to an email or a phone call seeking comment.

Zavitsanos said he has fielded queries from other businesses.

“I have received a number of calls after our case from other business owners across the country where they are experiencing the same type of shakedown that they were trying to engage in here in Houston, and I don’t know what’s going to come of that, but I’d be a little concerned if I were them,” he said.

SEIU organizations have faced RICO suits before, although not all have been successful.

  • In response to a long-running national campaign by the SEIU to organize workers at the food-service multinational Sodexo — which provides restaurants for company staff, catering, executive dining, and vending machines — company brass sued the union under the RICO statute. The lawsuit was settled in September 2011, and the SEIU ended its campaign against the firm.

  • New Jersey-based HealthBridge Management, which manages nursing homes, sued the SEIU under the RICO act. HealthBridge lost several court battles and in 2015 sold its unionized nursing homes.

  • Prime Healthcare Services, the owner of several Southern California hospitals, sued the SEIU under RICO with Prime arguing that the union was extorting the company in an effort to unionize workers at its hospitals. That suit was dismissed in April 2015.

But certainly there are cases where firms can take on people they believe have wronged them using the RICO statute — and win.

Indeed, it happened in Houston less than six months ago.

In November, former long-time Houston Independent School District Trustee Larry Marshall and several conspirators were found liable in federal court for participating in a criminal enterprise under the RICO Act.

Marshall and his cohorts were sued under RICO by a construction firm, the Gil Ramirez Group.

In addition to exposing a cozy pay-to-play culture within HISD, a jury awarded $5 million in damages to the Gil Ramirez Group, which claimed it did not get business with HISD because the company’s president, Gil Ramirez, did not pay bribes to Marshall.

Photo: Protestors march through the downtown streets chanting Thursday, Nov. 16, 2006 in Houston, as part of the ongoing janitors strike. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

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Trent is an award-winning editor and reporter, who has previously worked The Denver Post, The (Nashville) Tennessean, and the San Diego Union-Tribune. Most recently, he was the investigative producer for Houston’s KTRK-TV ABC-13. He was also the editor and founder of Texas Watchdog, a ground-breaking news group that paved the way for this project. Trent is a teacher of journalism skills, and has shown hundreds of reporters and citizen-journalists how to use public records, databases and journalism tools to keep a watchful eye on their own local government.

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