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South Florida's Leading Hotel Union, Unite Here Local 355,  in the Midst
 of an Internal Corruption Probe Targeting Two Top Organizers
By Douglas Hanks, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Business News

Aug. 19, 2006 - Already facing a membership squeeze, South Florida's leading hotel union is in the midst of an internal corruption probe targeting two top organizers, according to union officials and documents.

Outside investigators accuse Unite Here Local 355's president and secretary-treasurer of abusing their union expense accounts, filing bogus financial reports with the federal government and violating court orders barring the union from associating with certain criminals.

The charges are not criminal but stem from an oversight board created in the 1990s to settle a federal corruption case against the national hotel-workers union.

Andre Balash, who runs day-to-day operations at Local 355, declined to comment on the investigation except to say the allegation that he associated with a Mafia figure "is not true." President Jorge Santiesteban did not return several phone messages left on his voice mail at the union hall.

The internal documents obtained by The Miami Herald call for Unite Here to dismiss Balash and Santiesteban and permanently bar them from holding union jobs or elected offices.

Balash, who sits on the board of the tax-funded Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, has been the public face of Local 355 for a decade. The local union, which has about 3,000 members, elected Santiesteban president in 1996.

Levi Forte, a bellman at the Fontainebleau Resort who sits on Local 355's executive board, defended Balash and Santiesteban, saying the two helped rescue the union from near financial ruin in the late 1990s.

"They stepped in and brought this thing all the way back to the top," he said. He said he could vouch for many of the expense-account items on the charging papers, which Forte said he received this week.

The bulk of the charges focus on $7,000 in expense reimbursements Balash and Santiesteban collected between 1999 and 2002. Most are for meals under $100 and listed as business meetings with various union officials. Three items are Balash trips to Chicago and Key West that cost the union about $3,000 in all.

Investigators also accuse Balash of associating with a former union organizer in New York later accused of working with the Gambino crime family. A 1995 settlement of racketeering charges against the hotel union's national office bars union executives from associating with members of criminal groups.

The Local 355 investigation marks the latest hurdle for the South Florida union, which has lost members as hotels close for renovations and condo conversions. Though once a bastion for organized labor, South Florida's hospitality industry now counts only four unionized hotels.

Unite Here represents the four of them, but its roster took a significant hit in the spring with the partial shuttering of the Fontainebleau resort, Unite Here's second-largest local hotel.

Next year the unionized Sheraton Bal Harbour also is scheduled to close to make way for a hotel and condominium complex.

Though it has bolstered revenue by winning contracts with food-service workers at Miami International Airport, Local 355 expects to need subsidies from the national office to pay bills until the Fontainebleau reopens in two years, Balash said in March.

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Copyright (c) 2006, The Miami Herald

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