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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, November 23, 2002

Rodrigues steps down, Takeno new UPW chief

By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Staff Writer

Bob Mielke speaks on behalf of the UPW union board in announcing that UPW leader Gary Rodrigues has resigned effective immediately. The announcement was made yesterday at the UPW office on North School Street in Kalihi.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Embattled United Public Workers leader Gary Rodrigues, who was convicted of 100 federal felony counts this week and suspended by the union's parent organization, stepped down from his position yesterday.

But the end of his 21-year tenure as the state director of the 12,000-member union was marked with controversy as the UPW president accused Rodrigues of defying the union's parent organization and orchestrating the installation of his chosen successor.

Union board members announced Rodrigues had resigned after they met for about seven hours in a closed meeting at the UPW office at North School Street. The board members also said they unanimously named Dwight S. Takeno, UPW director of research and legislation, as Rodrigues' interim replacement until a permanent one is elected at the union's statewide convention next year.

But UPW President George Yasumoto said Rodrigues, who had been suspended from his position by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees International Union, did not have the authority to convene the board meeting.

"Gary is still in power. He doesn't want to relinquish that," Yasumoto said after board members entered the meeting but before the resignation was announced.

Rodrigues emerged briefly before the meeting but did not comment.

Once one of Hawai'i's most powerful labor leaders, Rodrigues, 61, was found guilty by a federal jury on Tuesday of 100 felony counts including mail fraud, money laundering and embezzlement. He was convicted of taking kickbacks from companies that did business with the union, as well as steering consulting fees to his daughter, Robin Rodrigues Sabatini, for work she didn't perform.

On Thursday, AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee sent a letter to Rodrigues suspending him from his post because his conviction "constitutes conduct imminently dangerous to the welfare of both UPW and the International Union."

McEntee followed the suspension with another letter to Yasumoto yesterday reiterating that Rodrigues had no authority as a union official and that as the state's highest ranking union official, Yasumoto could cancel yesterday's board meeting.

But Yasumoto said even though he informed members that the meeting had been canceled, Rodrigues successfully convened the meeting anyway. Yasumoto said Rodrigues wanted to ensure that Takeno was picked as his replacement.

Yasumoto left the UPW building before the board meeting ended.

"This is just a continuation of Gary Rodrigues attempting to control and dominate the union,"

UPW executive assistant Dayton Nakanelua said.

Yasumoto had appointed Nakanelua to replace Rodrigues yesterday morning, but just a few hours later Nakanelua's future with the union seemed uncertain.

"Employment sometimes is not within your control," Nakanelua told reporters as he left the office.

He said the board's decision will stand if it follows the state and international union constitutions.

"It's the board who represents the members throughout our state," he said. "If the board feels it acted properly and appropriately with all the decisions that they made today, then as a staff and as a member of the union, I accept it if it's proper."

In announcing Takeno's appointment, executive board member Bob Mielke said board members did not take Rodrigues' endorsement into consideration.

"We chose Mr. Takeno because he is very well qualified," he said. He added that Rodrigues was not present for the meeting.

Takeno said he was humbled and honored by the executive board's unanimous consent.

"We have a lot of work to do and need to get on with our business and solidify our union," he said.

Mielke said it was time for the union to move forward. "The union is strong. It's gonna move on and we're just going to stick together and I think that our union is stronger now than it ever was."

The next step will be to start negotiating for the members' new contract, he said.

Although the board did not consult with the international union yesterday, Mielke said the board members were guided by legal counsel and both the state and international unions' constitutions when they made their decision.

Mielke said Rodrigues was doing what he thought was right and what he had to do. "I think what he did was good for the union and all the members of this union," Mielke said.

Roberta Heine, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based AFSCME, said Rodrigues had been suspended as state director and "whatever other official positions he has with the union, but he remains a union member."

Current and former union members contacted last night expressed frustrations over the board's handling of the matter, and suggested Rodrigues was continuing to call the shots.

"That's Gary's man," Keith Chudzik, a Board of Water Supply employee and former UPW member who had challenged Rodrigues' leadership, said of Takeno. "They've put someone in who can get Gary his pension, maybe his administrative leave with pay."

Sgt. George Metsopulos, a correctional officer at Halawa correctional facility, expressed similar views.

"The committees were generally appointed by Gary Rodrigues and his people," Metsopulos said. "I don't know who this is stepping into (Rodrigues') shoes, but I didn't get to vote for him."

Union members at his shop feel so disenfranchised, Metsopulos said, that they are looking into ways to oust the UPW and find another union to represent them.

"The bottom line is," Metsopulos said, "the UPW is in bed with the state government, and the rank and file are getting frustrated."

Advertiser staff writer Karen Blakeman contributed to this report.

Reach Treena Shapiro at 525-8070 or tshapiro@honoluluadvertiser.com.