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AFSCME lobbying dispute spills into the Capitol

A high-ranking official with the union representing government workers sent a letter to state legislators implying that a lobbyist for one union local had misrepresented himself, setting off a dust-up between the local union and its statewide parent.

The letter, dated April 22, went to all 120 legislative offices, according to the staffer who provided it. In it, Willie Pelote, assistant director of political action for the American Federation of State, Country and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) International, advised legislators that he and colleague Michael Bolden represent AFSCME California and AFSCME International. He went on to say that lobbyist Carl London "is only authorized to represent" AFSCME Local 2620, which represents about 4,300 health and social service professionals employed by the state, mainly in prison and state mental institutions.

Near the end of the one page letter, Pelote states "I respectfully request that any such misrepresentations with your office …immediately be directed to me."

According to Nancy Swindell, president of Council 57, of which Local 2620 is a part, London has never misrepresented himself. She said that she was "surprised by the letter."

"Willie could have said Carl represents only Local 2620 without implying that Carl has misrepresented himself," Swindell said. She denied that London ever misrepresented himself, noting that he sends all of his written correspondence for the group on Local 2620 letterhead. On the contrary, she said, they have been very happy with London's work since hiring the firm January 1 of 2007.

She suggested another reason behind the letter-that Pelote felt "outclassed" by London.

"Since we hired Carl, we have become a political presence in California," Swindell said. "He has helped us organize a wonderful political plan for our local."

"We had no intention in getting into a dogfight with these folks," said George Popyack, director of AFSCME Council 57 and the California vice president for AFSCME as a whole. "We'll fix it internally."

Popyack confirmed what Swindell had noted-that London was brought in partly to replace Pelote as Local 2620's main lobbying presence in the Capitol: "When we needed to upgrade our legislative advocacy skills, Carl was a natural." 

Local 2620 hired London because they wanted to take a more active role, said both Popyack and Swindell. London has been working to oppose several bills, she said, and convinced Assemblyman Jose Solario, D-Santa Ana, to carry a bill on their behalf. AB 2753 would provide "title protection" to state social workers by limiting their title to those with at least a bachelor's degree in social work or a closely-related field.

When contacted on Monday, Pelote refused to answer questions.

"We never respond to the media on internal stuff that goes the Legislature," Pelote said. "Whoever provided it to you, tell them good luck."

Swindell said that the letter came in response to a meeting of several high-ranking AFSCME officials in Pelote's Sacramento offices about two weeks ago. They asked him to draft a document that helped clarify which lobbyist worked for different locals within the larger union. She said she was expected Pelote to produce a document that would be used inside the union to clarify roles-not a letter implying wrongdoing sent to the Legislature. In fact, she said, she met with Pelote's boss, AFSCME political action director Larry Scanlon, on Monday afternoon, before she become aware of the letter.

"If I had known that letter was out there, we would have had a different conversation," Swindell said. She said that she called Scanlon's office and asked him to speak to Pelote.

Other locals have their own lobbyists, she noted, such as Doug Chiappetta, who represents about 2,000 state-employed physicians and dentists, and William Schlitz, who lobbies for thousands of University of California workers represented by AFSCME Local 3299. Both men are employees of their union locals, not contract lobbyists.

But Schlitz said there is a key difference between London and himself and Chiappetta: London is a contract lobbyist, while they're employees of the union locals they represent. Schlitz noted that he hold the title of political director for Local 3299. He went on to claim that London has several potential conflicts of interest.

"They could have hired a political director, like my local did,"  Schlitz said. He added, "I don't want to be lumped into the same boat as Carl. I don't have 18 other clients."

Much of London's previous work has been done for other organizations in the health and welfare field, especially the California Psychological Association. London said that potential conflicts are common in lobbying-and that there are well-agreed upon means for avoiding them. He denied that he had any conflicts that would make it difficult for him to present Local 2620, or that he had created any confusion.

"We're very clear when we're representing Local 2620," London said. "We never miscommunicate that in any way."

The one thing everyone seemed to agree on was that they were troubled the dispute found its way into the media.

"I agree with Willie," Schlitz said. "There are internal discussions with Willie that are among the AFSCME family."

But Popyack had a pointed message for Pelote.

"There's a billboard over by the bridge he might want to use for their next internal message," he said.


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