Potent Prison Guards Union Facing Challenges to Status Quo

*A biting report on penal system, governor's call for concessions confront 'untouchable' labor group.

By Dan Morain, Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO â€" More often than not, the union that represents California's prison guards has won its battles.

On election day, union-backed candidates usually have been victorious. In the Legislature, union lobbyists have killed bills they saw as threats. At the bargaining table, union negotiators have gained lucrative pay and benefit packages. Representing 31,000 current and retired prison officers, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. repeatedly has proved itself to be among the most potent interest groups in state politics.

But last week, a federal court officer landed what one top union executive called a "sucker punch" in the form of an 85-page report by John Hagar, a special master assigned by a federal judge to help oversee court-ordered changes at the maximum-security Pelican Bay State Prison.

Hagar's report describes a code of silence among officers, refers to the "long arm of CCPOA's influence over the highest level" in the California Department of Corrections and alleges that the union repeatedly has sought to derail internal affairs investigations.

A "minority of rogue officers" can establish a code of silence and "create an overall atmosphere of deceit and corruption," the report said. "And if the minority are supported by a powerful labor organization, and the union as well as management condones the code of silence, the consequences are severe."

The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. has weathered past storms, surviving federal and state investigations and oversight hearings in the 1990s, when officers were accused of abuse and had shot and killed more than 30 inmates.

But the Hagar report is an unwelcome glare for a union entering new territory. The union has a new president, Mike Jimenez, who took over last year from Don Novey, the fedora-wearing union boss who took office in 1980 and built the organization into a powerhouse. And it lost a champion when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ousted Gov. Gray Davis in last fall's election â€" though the union did cushion the fall by spending no money to help Davis fend off the historic recall.

The Republican governor is now calling on the union to make concessions to help ease the state's budget woes. One way moneyed interests forge political alliances â€" donating campaign money â€" may not work with Schwarzenegger. He has a policy against taking contributions from public employee unions.

"He will deal forthrightly with them without any question of any inappropriate influence," said Rob Stutzman, Schwarzenegger's communications director. "They don't have any influence with the governor, other than the fact that they are a rightfully constituted bargaining unit."

The union will not be left out in the cold, however. The governor carved out a half-hour for a "get-acquainted" session with Jimenez in November.

Heading into the 2004 campaign, the union sits atop $2.34 million, ready to be doled to candidates who curry the union's favor. Although Schwarzenegger won't take the union's money, the California Republican Party is expecting the union to make good on a pledge to give the GOP $250,000 for the 2004 election.

The union also has alliances with Schwarzenegger's friends. It spent nearly $1 million in 1990 to help elect Gov. Pete Wilson, one of Schwarzenegger's political mentors. Wilson awarded an 11% raise to the union on his way out of office in 1998. Seamlessly crossing party lines, the union spent $2 million in direct and indirect donations to help Democrat Davis win election in 1998, then gave him another $1.4 million in his first term.

Robert Stern, a campaign finance expert and head of the nonprofit Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, called the union "untouchable."

"My guess is that he is not going to want to alienate a group like the prison guards, and they won't want to alienate him," Stern said.

Few elected officials disparage the union publicly. Those who do so risk their jobs. At least, that's the perception. The union has reacted in the past by sending five- and six-figure donations to opposition candidates, or digging up unpleasant facts to derail candidates who fall out of favor.

"There is a very definite sense that if you cross them, you may pay a price," said campaign consultant Darry Sragow, who represents Assembly Democrats. Sragow counsels legislators to follow their conscience. If they must challenge the guards, he suggests that they go gently.

"It is great to have CCPOA on your side," Sragow said. "If you can't get them on your side, it is imperative that they not be on the other side…. Try not to get in their face."

These days, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) is holding oversight hearings, along with Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). On Tuesday, their committee will meet to review Hagar's report, which the judge could ultimately refer to federal prosecutors or use to order prison reforms. In an interview, Speier said a "third party" relayed to her that in the union's view, she had "crossed the line" with her investigations.

"I'm not naive," said Speier, who is contemplating running for statewide office in 2006. "I realize that this is taking on an interest that has had extra power in multiple administrations of both parties…. If the prison guards come after me, so be it."

Union Vice President Lance Corcoran called Speier's comments "absolutely ludicrous."

"Sen. Speier is doing what she thinks is right," Corcoran said. "We assume she will be open-minded. If she has already made up her mind, that is problematic."

Corcoran defended the union's right to donate to candidates who "are willing to listen to our issues." He listed measures the union advocates: stricter background checks for recruits, better training in academies and peace officer status.

In the two decades since it won the right to represent prison workers, the union also has set out to burnish the image of correctional officers. The union funds crime victims groups and sponsors an annual crime victims' day at the Capitol.

In any year, it is among the most striking of all Capitol park demonstrations. On that day, the union and victims' rights advocates arrange hundreds of white cardboard coffins on the lawn outside the west steps. Victims' families display poster-size photos of loved ones who have been murdered. Political leaders make a point of showing up.

Prison officers walk, according to the union's motto, "the toughest beat in the state." Stab-proof vests protect them from most mortal wounds. Far more police officers have been killed than correctional officers, 28 of whom have died in the line of duty.

How much sway does the union have with management in the Department of Corrections?

"They dictate basically every move any warden that I've been associated with makes," a high-ranking Department of Corrections official said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "There's not a policy at the local or headquarters level that isn't reviewed by CCPOA."

Their influence is "certainly good for the rank and file." But it hampers managers' ability to run prisons efficiently, the official said, citing one seemingly minor provision in the latest labor contract, negotiated in late 2001 by the Davis administration and ratified in 2002 by the state Legislature â€" with only a single no vote. The contract stripped managers of one of the few tools they had to limit the use of sick leave. The labor pact permits officers to call in sick without a doctor's note confirming the illness. With the new policy in place, officers called in sick 500,000 more hours in 2002 than in 2001, a 27% increase.

The heavy use of sick leave by some officers forced prison managers to require officers to work additional overtime to cover all the posts. At least 110 prison officers used overtime pay to make more than $100,000 in 2002. One made more than $145,000 in 2002, records provided by the state controller's office last year show. Altogether, the state's correctional officers punched in $200 million worth of overtime in 2002 â€" 25% more than in 2000.

The union's moves leading up to that contract show the influence it had with the Davis administration. The dance began in late 2001, before the 2002 gubernatorial election campaign was in full swing.

Novey, then the union's president, was meeting in the union's West Sacramento office with one of Davis' closest aides, Michael Yamaki. As it happened, Novey's next appointment was with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, then contemplating a run against Davis for governor.

Yamaki and Riordan, seeing one another, then chatted about golf, as Novey recalled it. But of course, the conversation had little to do with recreation. Rather, Novey left the impression that there was at least a possibility that the union might endorse Riordan in the 2002 campaign.

The following week, Davis summoned Novey to a meeting to discuss the union's contract.

Based on what Novey and others said, here's what happened: Novey was kept waiting, seemingly grew impatient, and left. Davis, learning that Novey had walked off, dispatched a member of his security detail, a California Highway Patrol officer, to bring Novey back to the governor's office. Like many in the prison union, Novey views the CHP as a rival.

"Can you imagine a highway patrolman stopping me?" said Novey, who kept walking.

Then one of Davis' aides tried to mollify Novey, offering him a gift of a dozen golf balls signed by Davis. Novey was unimpressed: "I got signed golf balls by Reagan. Give me a break."

It was all part of the strategy. As the contract talks opened, Novey was almost flippant, telling administration officials that any smart union leader knows to wait until an election year to negotiate labor contracts, officials said privately at the time.

Novey could not be reached for this article. But in past interviews, he said he had been striving for years to attain parity with the CHP, contending that correctional officers have a far more difficult job. In the current contract, prison guards will gain pay parity with the highway patrol.

"Highway patrol gets all this candy," Novey said, then added sarcastically: "Their job is more dangerous. They give traffic tickets."

In the early 1980s, when Novey took control of the union, the top pay for veteran guards was $21,000 a year. Within a decade, the top pay was $44,676. By 2006, when the current contract expires, the pay is expected to reach $73,248 a year.

See the article on Los Angeles Times website

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

   Become a Clean Money Member