Ronnie Cunningham, the business agent for IATSE Local 44, has been charged with alleged embezzlement, misappropriation of the union’s funds, abuse of its callboard and various violations of its constitution. He was suspended from his top leadership post at the Affiliated Property Craftpersons Union, one of the largest locals with 5,600 members.
The suspension of Cunningham with no pay, pending the outcome of an impeachment trial on the charges, came at a March 1 meeting of the Local 44 executive board, which voted 16-0 to pursue the allegations outlined in an affidavit. The affidavit was filed by Craig Raiche, the Property Master Delegate on the Local 44 board.Cunningham—whose present term as Local 44 business agent commenced in September 2004 when he won a close run-off election with 53 percent of the vote—denied all the charges and said he planned to mount a vigorous defense.
He had previously served five terms as business agent—the top executive post at Local 44—from 1989 to 2001, when he lost a re-election bid. The accusations cover both alleged violations by Cunningham during the latter part of his first stint in office, and since 2004 when he returned after a 3-1/2 year gap.“The move against me is strictly political,” Cunningham told Below the Line, adding “I view it as an effort to silence my non-ratification of the new IA agreement.” He declined to explain or comment further.Cunningham’s was the sole no in the 54-to-1 vote cast by the negotiating team from the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (“International”) that in December accepted a new three-year Hollywood Basic Agreement negotiated with the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers. Cunningham’s objection, he said at the time, was based on his not having enough time to crunch the numbers on increased medical co-payments and other provisions in the contract hiking medical costs for union members. (See separate story on final ratification vote.)
Because of the upcoming legal proceeding, the other officers of Local 44 and the members of its executive board were officially precluded from commenting on either the charges against Cunningham or the move to oust him. (Besides propmakers, Local 44 also represents prop masters, workers in special effects, set decorators, construction coordinators and workers dealing with greens and miniatures.)
Asked for a response to the action by Local 44’s board to suspend Cunningham, IATSE spokesman Bruce Cohen said “The IA has no comment.”The affidavit, as published on the Local 44 website, whites out the names of individual witnesses. The allegations are that Cunningham:– in 2000 and 2004 “demanded cash payment” from employees of the union’s callboard or those seeking employment on Local 44’s callboard. In one incident in 2004, he supposedly asked for and personally received $1,000 in cash from someone “seeking to return to call board employment.”– illegally allowed at least 20 non-union members to get employment over Local 44 members, who were deprived “of the right to fair and honest dispatch from the callboard.”– “misappropriated union funds” by requiring unnamed union employees to do personal tasks for him. These ranged from maintenance of his family vehicles to work on his house including “painting, repairing the pool, installation of custom bird-houses and plumbing repair.”– from 1996 through 2001 “received many tens of thousands of dollars in compensation,” most of it in overtime that he was not entitled to “without express authorization from the executive board.”– between 1996 and 2001 reported hours to the Motion Picture Health and Pension Plans exceeding the 56 hours he was allowed under his plan agreement. He overcharged the union for hundreds of additional hours.– blacklisted two members from use of the call board between 1997 and 2001.– received an illegal $200 cash gratuity during his 2004 election campaign.
Many of these charges of financial irregularities had swirled around Cunningham during the protracted election campaign two years ago, so their inclusion in the affidavit does not come as a total surprise. Fresher are allegations of abuse by Cunningham of the Local 44 callboard placement system. The callboard basically serves as a conduit for job offers to members seeking work and is supported by union dues. No one eligible to use it is supposed to pay an added fee. Unemployed members are placed in jobs by several callboard stewards, who utilize a computer database. Priority is supposed to be given a Local 44 member based on their having the earliest lay-off date. What specifically triggered the unanimous vote by the executive board in early March to pursue impeachment proceedings against Cunningham is unclear. One explanation, according to sources, is a move by the U.S. Department of Labor in recent weeks to ratchet up a multiyear probe of the union.
When Cunningham took office in September 2004, he was already under a cloud. Soon after his squeaker victory, Cunningham, in an interview with Below the Line, said that though he had not been informed officially, it was his “understanding” that the Department of Labor, with jurisdiction over union management issues, had sent out subpoenas as part of a broad investigation into Local 44’s finances, much of it under his previous stewardship.
Cunningham at the time predicted he would be exonerated of any wrongdoing, and blamed the probe on “a vendetta” against him by IA president Tom Short, with whom he had engaged in a long-running public feud.
News that Local 44’s finances and compensation of Cunningham had come under IA scrutiny derived from a November 2001 letter from Short to Stewart McGuire, who was then the union’s business agent. The letter referred to an “examination of books and records for the Local” and came with an attached report from top IA officials that criticized how the union’s financial affairs had been conducted for over a decade, during which Cunningham was primarily in charge.
Cunningham first became leader of Local 44 in 1989, after a two-year period in which the union was run by a trustee appointed by the International, following allegations of mob connections and mismanagement by the local’s leadership. An armed standoff had taken place in 1987 when the International attempted to take control of the Prop Masters local. Cunningham, an assistant business agent at the time of the incident, was never accused of having anything to do with the previous regime’s questionable activities.In fact, he came into office as a reformer. In 1989 he was elected to the first of five consecutive terms (three for two years and two for three years) as business agent before losing a re-election bid to Art Brewer by just 22 votes. Brewer voluntarily resigned for health reasons in 2002 after only a year on the job (he passed away a year later), and was succeeded by McGuire, who had been his assistant. McGuire’s bid for re-election in 2004 ended in the first round when he placed third. In the runoff, Cunningham beat challenger J. Kevin Pike.