San Francisco Chronicle

 

 

Labor Lawyer's Firm Settles

He allegedly hid union bosses' looting

 

 

 

 

Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Tuesday, May 13, 2003

 

 

The name of Victor Van Bourg, a legendary labor attorney who died in 1999, will be stripped from his Oakland law firm to satisfy federal prosecutors who say he covered up for union bosses who looted their treasury.

 

The U.S. attorney's office in Washington, D.C., alleged that Van Bourg, as general counsel of the 125,000-member Iron Workers Union, helped top officials conceal the fact that they spent $1.5 million of the union's money between 1992 and 1998 on dining and entertainment.

 

Van Bourg conspired to hide the payments from union members and the U.S. Labor Department and took part in an illegal pension scheme for union leaders, prosecutors said. They also said he lied and withheld documents from a grand jury during an investigation that started in 1998.

 

No criminal charges will be filed against Van Bourg, Weinberg, Roger & Rosenfeld, which Van Bourg helped found in 1964 and is now the nation's largest law firm representing labor unions. But the firm will pay $120,000 in restitution to the union and its pension fund and $30,000 to the government for its costs of investigation under the settlement, announced May 2. The firm is required to change its name by June 15.

 

Seven union officials and employees, including its former president, Jake West, and three other people have pleaded guilty to criminal charges connected with the investigation. Most are awaiting sentencing.

 

The firm itself was not involved with the Iron Workers Union but was threatened with indictment for Van Bourg's alleged activities unless it agreed to the settlement, William Sokol, a partner with the firm, said Monday.

 

"All kinds of accusations are made about the advice he gave," Sokol said. "He's not alive to defend himself, and we don't know what happened back in Washington."

 

In a letter to its 400 union clients, required by the settlement, the firm said it had "learned of instances of misconduct and poor judgment" by Van Bourg. It added that the firm was expressing its "disappointment and disagreement" with his conduct by changing the firm's name.

 

According to the prosecutor's office, Van Bourg, who was general counsel to the Iron Workers from 1984 until his death, falsified reports to the Labor Department to conceal spending of union money on food, drink, golf and entertainment by West and other union leaders.

 

Van Bourg, who was paid nearly $200,000 a year to represent the union, tried to blame West's offenses on subordinates at the union and ordered that his own legal fees be understated in reports to the government, prosecutors said.

 

Van Bourg died of a heart attack in October 1999 at age 68. The son of union organizers, he was a painter before attending law school at UC Berkeley and spent eight years as a lawyer for Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers Union before opening his own law office.

 

His memorial service at the Palace of Fine Arts drew nearly 1,000 people. One of them, University of San Francisco English Professor Alan Heineman, whose union Van Bourg helped organize in the 1970s, described him at the time as "hirsute, 50 to 100 pounds overweight, noisy, literate, vulgar and profane . . . a great, shaggy, menacing bear who became a ballerina at the bargaining table."

 

"He was larger than life, both physically and in his style," Jon Hiatt, general counsel of the AFL-CIO, said Monday. He said Van Bourg, whom he knew for about 30 years, was "ideologically, totally committed to the practice" and headed a firm that was known for charging little or nothing to clients who couldn't afford to pay.

 

"Victor was a brilliant and aggressive advocate for working people," said the state's top labor leader, Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation.

 

Both he and Hiatt said they knew nothing about the Iron Workers case.


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