Schools champion accused of jetset fraud

30th May 2003 at 01:00
A champion of teacher's rights and fair funding for schools is facing an FBI investigation into claims he plundered his own union coffers to fund a jetset lifestyle.

Pat Tornillo, 77, who heads the largest labour union in the southern United States and spent 40 years campaigning for teachers' bargaining rights, academic freedom and desegregation, has been accused of running up bills on a United Teachers of Dade American Express card of at least $400,000 (pound;250,000) on non-union business over the past three years. Purchases are said to have included exotic holidays, jewellery, art, antiques, clothes and the services of a personal maid.

The allegations coincide with news that the United Teachers of Dade has failed to pay a $300,000 bill for thousands of members' supplemental insurance coverage. It has taken out loans to get by and is considering selling its $20 million Miami, Florida headquarters.

In November Mr Tornillo told education officials in Miami that he would negotiate "until hell freezes over" for teachers' pay rises and demanded "a hunt for spare dollars" to fund them before allegedly checking into a $2,000 a night suite at the luxurious Mandarin Hotel. He is then supposed to have run up a $20,138 bill for an eight-night stay.

In September 2000, Tornillo and his wife Donna, 56, allegedly spent three weeks jetting to California, Australia and New Zealand.

They are accused of staying at sumptuous hotels and shopping for fine art, Christmas ornaments, a necklace and a gold ring. The $49,715 bill, charged to the 12,000-member union, is equivalent to the salary of a teacher with 15 years' experience and a master's degree, or the annual union subscriptions of 59 teachers.

It is alleged there were also trips to Switzerland, India, Thailand and Cambodia, bills for luxury goods including a $325 pair of python-print pyjamas and matching robe, and a charge from a mail-order firm offering products "for adults who want to improve the quality of intimacy and sex in relationships".

Mr Tornillo has voluntarily given up his $243,000 salary and benefits package pending the outcome of the investigation, which is now before a federal grand jury. In a statement issued last Friday he said he would fight to clear his name.

Ron Sachs, a media consultant who previously worked for Mr Tornillo, said:

"He has worked harder, fought more battles and generated better results for public education in Florida than any combination of politicians and organisations. It would be a tragedy if the claims against him are true."

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