Teamsters oust union chief Atlanta Business Chronicle Walter Woods Staff writer The national Teamsters union has removed the head of the Atlanta local representing AirTran Airways mechanics amid allegations of financial misconduct. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters removed Kenneth Hilbish, the elected president and business manager of Teamsters Local 528, from his post after an internal investigation found evidence that "the interests of the local union and its membership are being jeopardized," according to a March 28 notice to union members written by Teamsters President James Hoffa. The Teamsters union has 1.4 million members and is one of the largest unions in the country. The union claims there is evidence Hilbish charged thousands of dollars in personal expenses to Local 528 for trips to Tampa, Fla., where his future wife lived, lodging expenses on a visit to Las Vegas around the time of his October wedding, a Florida trip with an AirTran manager and travel to Alabama that coincided with University of Alabama home football games, according to Hoffa's notice. The Chronicle's efforts to contact Hilbish were unsuccessful. Hilbish's telephone number is unpublished and the newspaper could not obtain a phone number for him. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters did not have a phone number for him or would not provide it. Rob Black, a spokesperson for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in Washington, D.C., would not comment on the allegations outlined in Hoffa's March notice. A full investigation of the allegations in the notice is ongoing, he said. "There are provisions [in the union's constitution] for removal of an elected officer if resources and assets of local membership are not being stewarded properly," Black said. The national organization has removed local officers before, Black said. The Teamsters union has more than 500 union locals around the country. Trustee takes over Hoffa has appointed Doug Norris, a Teamster international representative, to serve as temporary trustee of Local 528. A committee of union members was scheduled to decide April 30 whether to keep Norris for the time being or elect a new president. Results of that decision were not available at press time. Local 528 had 3,966 members as of Dec. 31, 2001, according to its most recent filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. It represents close to 400 AirTran employees, including about 300 mechanics. Members paid $59 a month in dues in 2001, according to government documents. Local 528 is one of two Teamsters locals based in Atlanta. The other is Local 728, which has 6,602 members and represents United Parcel Service Inc. employees, among others. Local 528's membership also includes employees at Gate Gourmet, the in-flight caterer for Delta Air Lines Inc., as well as workers at rental car companies at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport and subcontracted truck drivers for retailers like The Kroger Co. (NYSE: KR), Norris said. "Our goal is to try to get the local running in the manner it's supposed to be," Norris said. "Lots of things need to be done that haven't been done ... We're going to give the members the representation they deserve." Local 528 paid Hilbish $91,585 in 2001, including a salary of $74,021 and $17,564 in disbursements for official business, according to filings with the U.S. Department of Labor. The investigation of Local 528 began after a routine audit found "credible evidence of serious financial misconduct," Hoffa's notice said. Serious financial misconduct Further examinations of the local's books and records and interviews with staff found evidence the local was not being conducted in accordance with the International Brotherhood of Teamster's constitution "or for the benefit of the membership," the notice said. Hoffa's notice said Local 528 paid expenses for a trip Hilbish took in June 2002 to move his pleasure boat from the east coast to the west coast of Florida. Other people, including an AirTran (NYSE: AAI) manager, accompanied Hilbish, Hoffa's notice said, and "Local 528 paid for meal and lodging expenses associated with the move, as well as a rental car used during the trip." Hilbish listed the purpose of the expenses as "agent meeting" or "AirTran," the notice alleges. Steve Kolski, senior vice president of operations for AirTran, said he gave permission for the AirTran manager to help Hilbish move his boat over a weekend. Kolski said the AirTran employee was a manager of AirTran's ground service equipment workers and other employees who are represented by Local 528. He would not give his name. "[Hilbish] needed help, this person asked permission and I said 'OK,' " Kolski said. "This was over a weekend and didn't involve work days ... I didn't see any reason to deny [permission]." Tex McIver, a labor lawyer with Fisher & Phillips LLP in Atlanta who has represented employers in negotiations with Local 528, said he would have been uncomfortable being entertained by a union officer. "That's not necessarily appropriate," McIver said. "Large companies abide by the law, they can't afford not to, but to be entertained on his boat, I would have been uncomfortable." Kolski said such social meetings can help build better relationships among labor leaders and managers. Kolski, who works with other unions representing AirTran employees, also praised Hilbish's leadership of Local 528 and credited him with helping AirTran get through the difficult days after Sept. 11, 2001. "They were proactive in trying to prevent furloughs," Kolski said, and agreed to work four day weeks for about six weeks until the airline returned to normalcy. "The progress we had over the years with Mr. Hilbish in charge produced pretty good results for the company and our employees," Kolski said. "We'll continue to work for the same kind of results." <hr width=75% size=2> After viewing the latest LM2 on file, there is nothing in the report, which would disclose the alleged expense abuses, other than $54,998 spent in meeting and travel expenses. This is listed in Schedule 15 - Other Disbursements, under Meeting & Travel in item number 8, in the 2001 LM2 report. To the IBT's credit, they are challenging these expenses, although a vigilant membership may have been able to flag out these charges if the current LM2 report receives the necessary updgrades. These reports are primarily for union members, so they can view and challenge questionable expenses. As it stands now, these reports are too general in nature and often vague. Enforcing greater disclosure requirements would also cut down on the opportunities for corruption because it will be harder to bury it, thus making union leadership more accountable to the membership. Sunlight is often the best disinfectant.