FORT LAUDERDALE – A former official with one of South Florida’s most powerful labor unions remains in federal custody after being arrested during a court hearing on Friday.
Torrence Little, immediate-past recording secretary of local 1526 of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in Fort Lauderdale, is accused of failing to comply with a subpoena to turn over documents to a grand jury probing a range of allegations against the union.
The subpoena is related to an ongoing federal investigation into the union’s financial dealings dating back to 2007. According to sources, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Labor’s Racketeering and Fraud Division are conducting the investigation.
The union’s top official expressed surprise at the arrest.
“I just got back in town and I’m trying to gather all the facts and information, so I really can’t comment,” said Gus Wilkerson III, president of local 1526. “I got a call when I was out of town that Torrence had been arrested, so I’m just shocked and surprised.”
The U.S. Department of Labor referred questions to the Miami headquarters of the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which declined to comment.
“It is against Department of Justice policy to comment on any grand jury matters,” said Annette Castillo, an assistant to spokeswoman Alicia Valle.
The investigation and grand jury inquiry are being conducted in secret and Little’s arrest is shielded from public view. Subpoenas and other documents were issued under seal.
According to documents obtained by South Florida Times, Little was required to appear before the grand jury on March 17 and turn over minutes, recordings and notes taken of the union’s meetings. He appeared before the grand jury.
His arrest came during a subsequent hearing at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, when U.S. District Court Judge William P. Dimitrouleas ordered him remanded into custody indefinitely for allegedly failing to comply with the subpoena to turn over union records.
“You are commanded to appear in this United States district court at the time, date, and place shown below to testify before the court’s grand jury,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Lawrence D. LaVecchio wrote in a March 1 subpoena.
“You must also bring with you the following documents, electronically stored information, or objects: Executive Board and Membership meeting minutes, in written and/or recorded form, including all original handwritten notes/minutes taken at the meetings, and any resolutions and authorizations for the period covering January 2008 to present.”
After receiving the subpoena, Little informed union members and sent a letter to his successor, Carl Brown Jr., asking him to comply with the order. The letter was copied to the judge and investigators.
“On December 12, 2010, you were elected as Recording Secretary, ILA Local 1526. You were sworn in on February 8, 2011. I, Torrence Little, the prior Recording Secretary and Custodian of Records turned all records over to you as the newly elected Custodian of Records, approximately two (2) weeks after February 8. 2001,” states the letter dated March 30.
“Prior to March 17, 2011, Pedro Ocasio, Special Agent, was advised that you had possession of all records after I received the subpoena to testify before the Grand Jury on March 17, 2011, at 9:30 a.m.”
Despite that letter and his appearance before the grand jury, the judge still ordered Little to be taken into custody.
“Torrence Little has a wife, four little children and a grandmother at home but he is sitting in a federal jail for not turning over notes he told them he does not have,” said Darrell “Mike D” Payne, immediate past president of local 1526.
“He handed the records over to the new secretary and the hand-written notes were destroyed after the official minutes were approved. Disgruntled members lied and told the judge he was boasting about having the notes, but was not going to turn them over,” Payne said.
Over the past few years, federal agents have conducted several raids on the union’s headquarters at 440 NW Sistrunk Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. The lead investigator is FBI Special Agent Pedro Ocasio.
According to sources, the investigation centers on how union funds have been spent. There are also allegations of kickbacks, financial fraud, and bribes being paid to union officials in exchange for employment opportunities at Port Everglades.
Payne denies the union engaged in any wrongdoing.
“I hear those rumors just as I have always heard them since joining the union in 1983,” Payne said. “I can assure you that is not our standard or the way we perform. No organization is perfect, but the allegations are nothing but lies.”
Payne said the investigation was initiated by disgruntled members and he attributed it to political in fighting.
“We are not perfect and we don’t do everything right but, as far as kickback, payoffs or bribes? That’s ridiculous and nothing but lies,” Payne said. “Instead of this being our finest hour, we are being embarrassed by an investigation based on lies, gross exaggerations, and stretching of the truth.”
Local 1526 of the ILA union was chartered in 1937. Today, all its officers are African American and a majority of its more than 800 members are also black.
They provide manual labor and skilled tradesmen to cruise and ocean-going freight lines at Port Everglades, the world’s number one port for luxury cruises.