Ambulance Chasers

Winning ambulance contracts? It's all about who you know. (Unless it's about the dirt they've got on you.)

"This looks and sounds bad," he says. "It does seem as if you have a direct violation of the conflict-of-interest provision in state law."

Any potential problem on the city level, though, is so old and so mired in complicated details that it's no more than a footnote next to a bigger issue: the problems that Cantelme's association and resulting profits are now causing him with his fellow union officials.

Federal law bars union representatives from taking payments from private employers that work with their unions. It also requires union officers to disclose with the U.S. Department of Labor any time they receive something of value from a private employer or company, be that their employer or not, says Roger Gayman, a Labor spokesman in San Francisco.

Pat Cantelme
Giulio Sciorio
Pat Cantelme
Billy Shields, president of the union Pat Cantelme built, is supporting his old friend.
Giulio Sciorio
Billy Shields, president of the union Pat Cantelme built, is supporting his old friend.

"The idea is to avoid conflicts of interest, to make sure everything is aboveboard," Gayman says.

The feds take the law seriously.

For example, last year, they prosecuted a union official in Miami who'd taken money as a "consultant" from a host of private companies. The feds argued that the official, Walter J. Browne, had taken the money not to unionize the company's workers.

A jury agreed. Browne was sentenced to 70 months in prison.

As Cantelme is quick to point out, there's an exception in the law: Unions that consist solely of public sector employees don't fall under federal guidelines. They don't even have to file the paperwork.

(The Department of Labor is hoping to expand the provisions to some public sector unions in the future. Naturally, the unions are fighting the change.)

Legally, Cantelme is off the hook.

But that doesn't answer the ethical question.

And there's a group of guys who believes that, even if it was perfectly legal, Cantelme's business with Ramsey was a major conflict of interest.

Those guys are Ramsey's former employees -- some of Cantelme's brothers in the International Association of Fire Fighters.

They're livid.

Their union, the United Emergency Medical Professionals of Arizona, formed in 1991. In some ways, Cantelme was directly responsible.

The workers organized because they were unhappy with working conditions. Ramsey could be an extremely tough boss, they say, and the question was not whether to unionize, but who to unionize with.

Some firefighters sneered at the idea of letting ambulance workers into the IAFF.

Cantelme wasn't one of them. He supported the union's formation, and even helped them haggle with Ramsey for the terms of their first contract in 1992, signing it as a union negotiator.

Todd Denny, then the secretary of the union, remembers that union members were disappointed with the contract.

But Cantelme praised it.

"This is about the best contract you can expect as a new union," Denny recalls him saying.

Two years later, Cantelme went to work for Ramsey.

And even then, he continued to be helpful to the union.

The Phoenix firefighters union let the emergency workers hold meetings in its office, recalls Michael Quen, who was then on the emergency workers' executive board.

"Pat Cantelme was pretty much our go-to guy," Quen says.

Even with the IAFF's help, though, the emergency workers found Ramsey difficult to deal with. He was notoriously tough in negotiations, they say, and wages stayed extremely low.

"Ramsey was a tyrant as a boss," says Jason Payne, who started in 1996 at $4.50 an hour and is currently vice president of the emergency workers union. Workers were so badly paid, Payne says, that after Ramsey sold the company, they all got a 22 percent raise.

A New Times column in July 1997 ("Ambulance Chasteners," Barry Graham) detailed some of the workers' complaints during the Ramsey era: Starting pay was ludicrously low. Raises were hard to come by; 24-hour shifts were the norm.

It was Cantelme who rose to Ramsey's defense.

Ramsey, Cantelme told the writer, "put a high premium on service delivery, and sometimes that requires people to work harder than they may feel that they should work. But I've never known him to be unfair or malicious."

He did not mention that he'd been in business with Ramsey for the past three years.

He did not mention that, just one month before, Ramsey sold his holdings to Rural/Metro and Cantelme had received $2.3 million.

The union guys didn't mention the payday, either. At the time, they didn't know about it.

They didn't find out until this year, when Cantelme and Ramsey made their bid to take over ambulance service in the Valley -- and take away their jobs.

Their union contract allows them to ask for certain company records. And a secret source, one they won't name, suggested they ask for records that pertained to Pat Cantelme.

Sure, it was probably someone who had a major ax to grind against Cantelme, someone at Southwest who was eager to keep the former union leader out of the ambulance market. Clearly, the information was released to tar Cantelme.

With members of the emergency workers union, it certainly did the trick.

They couldn't believe it.

"Pat Cantelme is a very revered person among labor leaders in Arizona," explains Payne, vice president of the emergency workers union.

"It was almost like he was up on a pedestal. He made labor in Arizona what it is today."

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