Clocked: Baltimore port timekeepers convicted of fraud over no-show work

By Van Smith

Published by City Paper, Oct. 6, 2010

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A federal jury in Baltimore returned a guilty verdict on Sept. 30 against three union port workers, finding that they conspired to defraud their employer, the stevedoring company Ports America Baltimore, Inc., by submitting payroll information that caused them to get paid for time when they weren’t on the job. The jury found that federal prosecutors proved that International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 953 members William Richard Zichos Jr., Dale Martin Kowalewski, and Joseph Ross Bell intentionally engaged in a mail-fraud conspiracy that, from 2004 to 2008, netted them nearly $42,000 in wages and benefits for work they did not perform.

The convictions are likely to send a strong message to waterfront workers that the practice, which was described during the trial as longstanding and commonplace, is illegal and can be successfully prosecuted.

“The evidence showed that the defendants used their positions as timekeepers to falsify their attendance reports and receive salary payments for lengthy periods of time when they were not at work, including many occasions when they were on vacation overseas,” U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein said in a statement issued after the verdict.

“We thought—and still think—there wasn’t any intent to defraud Ports America out of anything,” Zichos’ attorney Steven Wrobel said after the verdict. “Ports America is not a victim, but the jury didn’t see it that way.” Ports America, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. The attorneys for Kowalewski and Bell did not return messages seeking comment. Messages left at the Local 953 office and for ILA President Richard Hughes Jr., who testified at the trial, also were not returned.

The case against the three men, whose timekeeping duties involve logging hours worked by themselves and by others who help load and unload ships, stemmed from an August 2008 raid on their office, Building 1200A at the Dundalk Marine Terminal, which is known as the “timekeepers’ shack.” The target of that raid was not the timekeepers, but Milton Tillman Jr., an ILA Local 333 member who is also a politically connected bailbondsman and real estate investor (“Collateral Catch,” Mobtown Beat, March 31).

Tillman Jr. and his son, Milton “Moe” Tillman III, were charged early this year in a wide-ranging indictment for tax evasion, illegal insurance-writing, and, in respect to Tillman Jr., mail fraud for getting paid for no-show work at the docks. As the Tillman investigation progressed, the timekeepers were interviewed by law enforcers and brought before the grand jury, and as a result ended up charged themselves.

In an Oct. 4 phone interview, Rosenstein acknowledged the connection between the Tillman investigation and the timekeepers’ case, saying the latter were pursued, in part, because “sometimes you’re not looking for fraud, but you come across it and can’t ignore it.” He also said the case was important because the timekeepers’ fraud scheme raised questions about “the integrity of the entire process” of payroll on the docks.

While never explicitly permitted, drawing pay for work not performed—known along the waterfront as “covering” —has been seen as a victimless practice, according to Baltimore longshoreman John Blom, a member of ILA Local 333, who was interviewed shortly before the timekeepers’ verdict was returned.

“Everybody [who works at the port] has been covered at one point or another in their working careers,” Blom says. “It happens all the time, and [Ports America] knows that. Formally, it has never been that covering is allowed, and I don’t condone it either. But I can’t see how Ports America was harmed—under [union contracts] it is obligated to hire ‘X’ number of workers to get the job, so they just would have to hire somebody else instead. The only person who should be complaining is the guy who didn’t” get called up to replace an absent worker.

Blom claims that last year’s indictment of the timekeepers, even before their conviction, prompted a change in behavior on the waterfront. “Covering doesn’t happen nearly as much as it used to,” he says.

Assistant U.S. attorneys Martin Clarke and Stephen Schenning, who are also prosecuting the Tillmans, handled the case against the timekeepers. During final arguments, Clarke told the jurors that “the evidence is overwhelming” that the defendants submitted fraudulent paperwork to get paid for unperformed work. He recounted the voluminous exhibits in the case, proving that the defendants had been paid for working when in fact they were elsewhere: Zichos and Kowalewski had taken vacations abroad, for instance, while Bell had been out getting and recovering from surgery.

“And so,” Clarke continued, “we’re at the next stage—they’re caught. And having been caught, they really can’t mount a defense that they didn’t do it.” Rather, “they circled the wagons” and, during the trial, attempted to create a factual basis that they had a “good-faith belief that it was all right” to engage in covering.

In fact, Clarke argued, the defendants “had their own little union within a union,” engaged in a “well-known corrupt practice” of covering—and “they paid who they wanted to pay, to keep them in the club” of no-show timekeepers.

The government’s case involved testimony from two other Local 953 timekeepers who had engaged in covering too. Both—Michael Schaeffer, who was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for taking the witness stand, and George McKenzie Jr. —told jurors that the practice was wrong, and they knew it was wrong when they did it.

Bell’s attorney, William Butler, attempted to persuade jurors that his client had nothing to hide and was only doing what port workers had done for a long time—that he “merely complied with past practices.” He said Ports America and other stevedoring companies knowingly tolerate covering because all they want to do is “get the job done, mission accomplished,” and this ages-old practice serves that end. Nonetheless, the federal government stepped in, so the timekeepers ended up “charged criminally for activities that have been going on for many, many, many years.”

John Bourgeois, Kowalewski’s attorney, demonstrated a deep sense of outrage over the charges during closing arguments, stressing that the defendants’ conduct harmed no one, that Ports America never protested the well-known practice until the law enforcers started to build a criminal case, and that the amounts involved were “a pittance.” Bourgeois kept repeating “$41,656 among three men over five years,” adding that Kowalewski’s take amounted to 17 days of work, or about four days a year. “Would these men throw away their livelihood, their honor, for four days a year?”

Evidently, the jury’s answer to that question was, “Yes.”

Collateral Catch: Investigation into indicted bailbondsman snared other members of troubled waterfront union

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Mar. 31, 2010

The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), the nation’s largest union of maritime workers with some 43,500 members stationed along U.S. and Canadian coasts, has deep roots in Baltimore. Baltimore native Richard Hughes Jr. has been its president since 2007, and he is also the business agent for ILA Local 953, based in Locust Point. Del. Brian McHale (D-46th District), who represents Baltimore’s waterfront in the state House of Delegates, is on Local 953’s roster as a steamship clerk. One of the ILA’s vice presidents, Horace Alston, heads the union’s Baltimore District Council. He and former ILA general vice president John Shade are trustees of Baltimore’s ILA Local 333.

But amid the well-connected ILA members in Baltimore, one longshoreman in particular raised the union’s profile recently: Milton Tillman Jr.

A politically connected ex-con and real-estate investor who is the dominant force in Baltimore’s bailbonds industry, Tillman Jr. is also a member of ILA Local 333. On March 17, a federal indictment charging Tillman Jr. and his son, Milton “Moe” Tillman III, with tax fraud, wire fraud, and unlawful bailbonds practices, was unsealed (“Milton Tillman and Son Indicted in Bailbonds Conspiracy,” The News Hole, March 17). It includes charges that Tillman Jr. was paid for unloading ships at Baltimore’s docks on shifts when he was in Brazil, Argentina, Spain, and Las Vegas, among other places.

The Tillman investigation, court records show, also helped prosecutors nab three other ILA members in Baltimore–William Zichos Jr., Dale Kowalewski, and Joseph Bell–who were indicted on wire-fraud conspiracy charges last November. The three men are union timekeepers who record the hours clocked by dockworkers for payroll purposes. They are members of ILA Local 953, which represents clerical workers in Baltimore’s maritime industry. The case against them alleges they also got paid for no-show work by the stevedoring company Ports America, including at times when they were in France, Costa Rica, Iceland, Las Vegas, and Florida.

The trial in the timekeepers’ case, which had been scheduled to begin in April, was recently postponed until September. The Tillmans’ trial is expected to take four to five weeks, and is currently scheduled to start on May 24, though at a March 26 arraignment hearing in the case, Tillman III’s attorney, Steven Allen, questioned whether that’s a “realistic date.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland declines to confirm a connection between the Tillman investigation and the timekeepers’ indictment. “We can’t go beyond what’s in the public record,” spokeswoman Marcia Murphy says in an e-mail. “And there is nothing in the public record connecting those cases.”

But records in both cases show a nexus: an Aug. 18, 2008, raid on Building 1200A at Dundalk Marine Terminal.

Building 1200A, known as the “timekeepers shack,” was one of seven locations raided as part of a multi-agency probe into the Tillmans (“Tillman Properties Raided by Feds,” The News Hole, Aug. 20, 2008). The other locations–residences, a vehicle, and business offices associated with the Tillmans–were searched because agents expected to turn up proof of tax fraud and unlawful bailbonds practices. The timekeepers shack was targeted, according to the 65-page search warrant affidavit, because investigators expected to find evidence of Tillman Jr.’s suspected “‘no-show’ or ‘ghost worker’ scam.” Investigators on Tillman Jr.’s trail seized payroll documents and computer records from Building 1200A, including from the desks of Zichos, Kowalewski, and Bell.

Tillman Jr. was convicted of a similar scam in the 1990s, when he used a straw employee to work hours in his stead, so he could get paid without actually working.

After the raid, court records show, Zichos was called to testify before a federal grand jury. He met with prosecutors Martin Clarke and Stephen Schenning leading up to that grand-jury testimony, and his answers to their questions raised suspicions.

According to a Feb. 17, 2010, government filing in the timekeepers’ case, the prosecutors asked Zichos if he had ever received “no-show” pay. The filing says that initially, Zichos said “he had received pay for a no-show shift only once in his career . . . and that was when he attended his father’s funeral. In giving his answer, he appeared to be very nervous and overly emotional.”

Then Zichos owned up to “other times when people covered for him, such as when he had a doctor’s appointment or important personal business.”

“There were other times when he was paid for work he did not do, including when he went on vacation,” the filing states. “He was reluctant to give details or say who covered for him and he appeared nervous and upset while giving his answers.” The prosecution’s filing says that Zichos admitted to more occasions when he received no-show pay, though he is “still not clear on some of the details, especially who had covered for him.

“The government later learned that Zichos’ grand-jury testimony was inconsistent with evidence . . . from other sources regarding the scope of his involvement in a no-show scheme involving the timekeepers,” the filing says, “especially the extent to which he covered for others so they could receive no-show wages.”

The ILA’s problems in Baltimore got worse in January when Local 333’s members sued its leadership. Among those leaders are ILA vice president Alston and former general vice president Shade, who gained control of Local 333 in 2005 when the national union placed it in trusteeship due to alleged improprieties. The suit, filed in federal court, alleges that since Local 333 entered trusteeship, unlawful conduct has pervaded its leadership. It cites missing money, unapproved salary increases, shifting Local 333’s jurisdiction over port jobs to another newly formed local, and negotiating with employers behind the membership’s back. The lawsuit also claims that Local 333 is close to bankruptcy.

Shade has other problems, as well. Last year, he lost his position as ILA general vice president after the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor, which polices the New York/New Jersey docks for organized-crime ties, concluded that he was prohibited from holding the position due to his criminal history. According to a New York Supreme Court ruling from Oct. 2009, which upheld the commission’s decision, Shade has “convictions for felonies, all dating between 1970 and 1990 and relating to illegal gambling.”

Since 2005, the union’s bosses in New York have been fighting prosecutors who, in a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) case, say the union is captive to organized crime. Hughes and Alston are named as defendants in the case, which includes allegations of no-show jobs. “We’re still waiting for a decision on our motion to dismiss,” says Don Buchwald, Alston’s New York lawyer.

Attempts to reach Shade, Alston, and Hughes to comment for this article were unsuccessful. McHale, who is busy tending to legislative business during the ongoing General Assembly session, also could not be reached for comment. Lawyers for the Tillmans, Zichos, Kowalewski, and Bell either declined to comment or did not return phone calls.

Ronald Barkhorn, one of Local 333’s members and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the local’s leadership, offered his perspective on the ILA’s problems in Baltimore in a recent interview.

“The Tillman thing was just something the feds could use to get the door open,” he says. “To get that warrant to get the payroll records and prove the ‘ghosting,’ when they pad the payroll with fictitious people, just like in the RICO case in New York.” As further evidence of dockside intrigue, he points to another federal criminal case involving embezzlement of pension funds from the Waterfront Guard Association Local 1852, in which two union officers pleaded guilty last year.

“It’s all ongoing,” he says of the government’s waterfront probe, “so you’re not going to find the real deal because it’s all secret.”

Barkhorn’s contention appears to be confirmed in the court record of the timekeepers’ case. The Feb. 17 filing by prosecutors says that the “underlying investigation” is “still ongoing,” though it’s not clear if it refers to just the Tillman case or something more far-reaching.