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Dirty work at Local 174

$5 mil wrongful-termination suit shows election enmity

Lisette Rodriguez knew something was wrong when, she says, she saw her boss pour Drano on a co-worker’s office plants.

Just down the hall, Joel Appell’s mail went missing. Instead, he says, he began receiving countless magazine subscriptions and other mail-order items he had never asked for.

Things haven’t been right lately at the headquarters of Office & Professional Employees Local 174, which represents 1,800 clerical workers at Universal, Sony, CFI and other Hollywood outfits. This week it began an election filled with division, tales of bizarre behavior and a hefty lawsuit.

Rodriguez, a former secretary and job-referral assistant at the Burbank-based local, was fired in November because, she says, she refused to continue spying on Appell, a political opponent of Christine Page, the local’s president since 1993.

Appell and Page have reluctantly shared the post of business representative at Local 174 for the past two years, but it’s no secret that they don’t get along. Disgusted by the enmity, Appell has removed himself from the election — which ends on June 16 — while Page is running for re-election as biz rep.

In a $5 million wrongful-termination lawsuit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Rodriguez accused Page of ordering her to intercept Appell’s mail and faxes, eavesdrop as he spoke on the phone, rifle through his desk, alter the addresses of his supporters so that they would not receive his correspondence, and subscribe to magazines and things like Franklin Mint without his consent.

You got mail

“I was supposed to bombard him with that kind of stuff so that he’d be too busy to be active in the race,” Rodriguez said in a phone interview, referring to the local’s 1996 internal election. “His mail was diverted so that he wouldn’t be aware of goings-on in the union. I’d pick up the mail and hand it to her; she’d open it and read it and if it was something she didn’t want him to see, she’d get rid of it. She was always one step ahead, screwing him up.”

Appell told Daily Variety this week he had “known that there was some effort going on against me,” but couldn’t pin it on anyone until he saw Rodriguez’s lawsuit.

“My life has been hell for three years,” he said. “I’m sick to my stomach over this, and I will not take part in any further activities of Local 174. It’s very painful to me. I always conduct myself as a professional and a gentleman.”

About four years ago, he said, he was “tipped off about not getting my mail.” Then, in ’96, he started getting the books, periodicals and decorative plates. “There were literally hundreds of them,” he said. “It was done to drive me crazy.”

Rodriguez insists she was instructed by Page to treat Appell and his assistant, Petrea White, as “the enemy.” One day, Rodriguez said, she observed Page pouring Drano on three of White’s plants. White confirmed that “someone poured something on them,” but that she flushed the plants repeatedly and saved them.

Reached Thursday, Page emphatically denied damaging the plants or ordering Rodriguez to spy on or harass Appell. “There was never a strategy,” Page said. “Shop talk? Sure. But plotting? Not really.”

Puppy love

The magazines and books, Page said, could have been Rodriguez’s own idea.

“Lisette had a tendency always to be an active puppy, always at your feet, always trying to do something,” Page said. “It’s not that far a stretch.”

Both Page and the local’s accountant, Lupe Kanyer, who is also a defendant in Rodriguez’s suit, said they had overheard Rodriguez saying she planned to retaliate against an old boyfriend by blitzing him with subscriptions.

Page also accused her former secretary of perennial tardiness, falsifying her time cards and absenteeism. Page said Rodriguez loaded video games into the office computer and signed up for America Online without permission; Rodriguez said Page asked her to hook up the service because the local needed its own Web site.

Page also said that Rodriguez brought a bottle of tequila into the office and played a radio loudly during work hours. Perhaps the strangest accusation against Rodriguez — from both Page and Kanyer, the accountant — is that she once flashed her bare breasts in Kanyer’s office and, on another occasion, grabbed Kanyer’s lower posterior.

“Absolutely not,” Rodriguez said when told of the latter allegations. “I completely deny those lies and wishful thinking on her part,” she added, referring to Kanyer.

The election, which will put in place a 10-member board of officers, is ugly on other fronts, particularly the battle between Page and her challenger for the biz rep job, Daryl Roberts.

Fronting Appell

People on Page’s slate accuse Roberts and four other members of his slate of being a front for Appell.

“Daryl is a ‘stand-in’ candidate for Joel Appell,” reads a flyer put out by the Page camp. “Joel wants a job, but rather than risk humiliating defeat he chose a ‘puppet’ candidate. Look to Daryl to hire Joel Appell as an assistant business agent.”

Quite the contrary, Roberts said in an interview. “Joel’s leaving — he hasn’t even talked to me about anything other than to say good luck.”

Roberts, a royalty accountant at Fox Home Video, said he is running “because this union has been stagnating for six years.” As for Page, he said, “I have no idea where she’s coming from except a position of attack. I wish we could talk about the issues.”

In response, Page said Roberts “doesn’t even know where the phone book is.”

The strife at Local 174 is far from over. “It’s going to get uglier,” Kanyer said.