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What do you get when you combine two irate union leaders, a top-secret slander trial, a handful of fishy travel vouchers and allegations of gay-baiting?

You get Local 3369 of the American Federal Government Employees union, a fragmented Social Security workers' union local divided into two warring factions. “It's a madhouse in there now,” said 3369 member Pamela Allen.

The conflict arises from a battle between the union's former president and a new regime intent on punishing him for his actions at the helm. In December 1996, insurgent Charlie Fahlikman defeated John Riordan, the openly gay official who had led the local for 17 years. But the victors were not satisfied with beating Riordan–now they want him out of the union altogether.

Before the election, Riordan had aided federal investigators in a probe of Fahlikman's ally, Andy Poulos, whose alleged misuse of union travel funds led to a 60-day suspension. In a stern letter sent to Poulos in November 1996, Social Security auditors cited him for numerous violations, including the following: “You had submitted a travel voucher showing a visit to Touro [an orthodox Jewish college] on October 4th 1995, which was Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday on which the library was closed.”

Following the official rebuke, Poulos, the local's health and safety officer, brought slander charges against Riordan for his cooperation with investigators. If convicted by union leaders, Riordan could be expelled from the union. Poulos alleges that Riordan lied to investigators on five instances. “He meant to harm me, he maliciously and voluntarily lies,” Poulos said. Fahlikman refused comment, except to say: “This is internal union business.”

In early June, the local convened a closed-door trial before a three-member committee. A City Limits reporter was booted from the building. After a week of hearings, the trial was postponed and will continue this fall.

The outcome of the proceeding may not matter much anyway. In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that internal union slander trials are unconstitutional, according to Carl Biers, director of the watchdog group, the Association for Union Democracy. “I've seen dozens of them go to federal court and not a single slander charge has ever been held a being legal,” Biers said.

Riordan attributed some of the animosity to his opponents' homophobia. “The rumors were spread during the election to besmirch my reputation,” he said. “They said I was downloading pornography from the internet, but our office isn't even connected.”

For his part, Poulos denied any anti-gay sentiment, but admitted: “I couldn't work under his tutelage any longer. We have lifestyle differences.”

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