‘Ghost Worker’ corruption probe grinds on at Port Tampa Bay

Investigations

There are dozens of longshoremen who make a living at Port Tampa Bay. Some of them never even step foot onto the docks, yet still collect a paycheck.  

They’re called “ghost workers” and a federal investigation that’s been going on for well over a year still hasn’t gotten to the bottom of how many there are and who’s responsible for the alleged payroll fraud that deprives hardworking stevedores out of pensions, benefits and wages.

Legitimate union dock workers compete for limited working hours and their benefits and pensions depend on reaching certain benchmarks. The more hours they work, the better their benefits.

So when “ghost workers” siphon off available hours, they lose the chance to reach higher benchmarks and a livable pension.

That keeps some of them loading and unloading ships into their 70s because they can’t afford to retire. 

Danny Riley is a dock worker and longtime union member of International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1402 who has been clamoring for an end to this alleged fraud for nearly two years.

“A little disappointed,” Riley said. “But I understand they have to cross their T’s and dot their I’s.

So far, the only thing that’s been generated by a federal grand jury investigation that started last year is one admission of guilt and plea bargain in June by Jerry Reyes, one of the so-called “ghost workers.”

Reyes admitted receiving 21 longshoreman paychecks for doing exactly nothing. 

Reyes tells 8 On Your Side he’s a boxing promoter, not a longshoreman, and was talked into the scheme by a third party, identified in federal court records as “Individual A.”

According to Reyes, plea agreement “Individual A” worked during 2015 as the Operations Manager for a port company called Ceres that provided cruise ship stevedoring and terminal management at Port Tampa Bay. 

The plea agreement states that based on falsified records, the operations manager provided Reyes with 21 paychecks totaling $10,863 and split the proceeds with him for “ghost work” that never actually took place. 

Federal records obtained by 8 On Your Side suggest there are as many as nine other ghost workers under investigation as well as other possible conspirators.

Former union pension trustee Evan Cotton first approached 8 On Your Side last year after discovering evidence of ghost workers and alleged fraud he first uncovered eventually lead to the charging of Reyes. 

“A lot of money is involved that’s been distributed to people who didn’t earn it and a lot of people have been deprived of that money,” Cotton told us in May 2017.

“I think it’s criminal.”  

Cotton has since retired and moved to another state. But the federal investigation his pension fund sleuthing started grinds on.

The ILA union top leadership based in New Jersey initially showed interest in doing their own investigation and held an emergency closed door hearing in Tampa shortly after 8 On our Side reported on the alleged scheme.

They appointed a temporary trustee, but appeared to do nothing else to shake up Local 1402 leadership or further investigate the ghost workers.

Since then, Tampa ILA Local 1402 President James Harrell, who repeatedly denied there was any truth the allegations, has since retired. 

The Local’s vice president at that time, Leon Chandler, is about to take the role of president and assume a six-figure salary and has consistently refused any comment to 8 On Your Side.

Every time we knock on the door at Local 1402 headquarters, he locks it and ignores or requests for comment.

Meanwhile, outspoken critics like Danny Riley patiently, and sometimes impatiently, wait for the wheels of justice to hold someone accountable for robbing them of their wages, pension and benefits by enabling the ghost worker scheme to continue unchecked for years.

“Well, sir the only thing that’s changed here, Mr. Chandler is the president now,” Riley said.

“That’s all that’s changed.”

The Department of Labor refuses to comment on this investigation. The U.S Attorney’s Office suggested we call back in January. 

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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