Why was Dan Totten ousted?

Both the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald today report on the ouster of Boston Newspaper Guild president Dan Totten, whose leadership during the union’s months-long standoff with the Globe’s owner, the New York Times Co., was widely criticized.

Each story raises more questions than it answers, starting with the use of the word “guilty” to describe the internal ruling against Totten on Wednesday. That’s a pretty loaded term, but neither account gives any indication whether it’s one that the union specifically uses, or if it’s just a less-than-legally-precise description of what happened.

As for the charges against Totten, let’s take a look at the specifics:

  • He was found to have signed the name of another union official to his own paycheck.
  • He was found to have improperly used his union credit card to buy $254 worth of personal items.
  • He was found not to have produced receipts in a timely manner.

Are any of these accusations the sort of thing that law enforcement would find interesting? Perhaps the second item, although — not to downplay the seriousness of the allegation — it probably wouldn’t be worth the time given how little money was at stake. But it would seem to me that if Totten is not under any sort of criminal investigation, then we should tread carefully before labeling him a union crook.

As for the two other items, you could argue whether Totten should be punished for signing someone else’s name so that he could cash his own paycheck, but it was, after all, his own paycheck. Not producing receipts in a timely manner? You’ve got to be kidding.

I want to make it clear that I’m not sitting in judgment of anyone. Perhaps Totten really was, uh, guilty of serious malfeasance. My only point is that we don’t know.

I’d like to see someone dig into this and find out whether we are truly talking about malfeasance, or if instead Totten was sacrificed because his members are unhappy with the way he dealt with the Times Co.

The Guild-Times Co. standoff was the biggest local media story of the year. Totten’s fall is an important element of that.

Update: One question has been answered. According to a copy of an e-mail from the Guild that has been forwarded to Media Nation, it is indeed the Guild itself that used the term “guilty.” Here’s the full text:

Dear Boston Newspaper Guild Member,

A jury of members of the Boston Newspaper Guild today found President Daniel Totten guilty of charges that he improperly signed a paycheck and ignored directives to turn over expense receipts in a timely manner. The jury voted to expel Mr. Totten from the union, and also ordered him to pay a fine of $254. The jury heard several hours of testimony from Union officers and office staff. Mr. Totten declined to participate in the trial process. The five members of the jury were chosen by random selection.  Mr. Totten has the right to appeal the verdict.

Sincerely,

Scott Steeves
Acting President, The Boston Newspaper Guild

Welcome, Romenesko readers. There’s a lot more where this came from here.

21 thoughts on “Why was Dan Totten ousted?

  1. Joey

    I’m not naive enough to assume that internal union politics had nothing to do with Totten’s ouster. But, frankly, all those charges lumped together indicate an organization that plays loose with its controls to manage its cash– and Totten is the head of that organization, so he’s the one condoning those loose policies. If Totten were the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and he were allowing that sort of loose tone to happen, he’d be fired.

    Some readers here might scoff at that, but I suggest you ask any board director at a large company what he or she would do about a CEO who allows loose rules over financial controls, as Totten apparently did. That director would agree 100 percent.

  2. Steve Stein

    I have very little understanding of what’s going on in this case, but why would Totten need to sign someone else’s name to his paycheck? That strikes me as odd.

  3. gilded

    I think that what Totten did was par for the course, normal operating procedure at the Boston Newspaper Guild, which doesn’t mean the actions conformed to the rules as written. But the “trial” and the firing were payback. Not for the end result of the negotiations, I doubt anyone could have done better; it was clear from the start that the NYT Co wasn’t really negotiating, but demanding. No, Totten was strung up for acting like a jerk to more than half of his union members, for which though it wasn’t listed among the charges he was guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt. It seems it would have been more seemly, if the membership had simply recalled him, or voted no confidence, or he had been willing to step down, but maybe none of those alternatives was available.

  4. Jerry

    All three charges are misdemeanors at most. But the union can do whatever it wants internally, raised eyebrows be damned. The only justification for reporting this internal action is to close the file created by earlier reports. Ah, that the Globe and Herald (and everyone else) were so conscientious about following up on other charges published in their pages!

  5. Jerry

    Steve, I recall that the issue was that Dan needed to get paid and the necessary authorized signator wasn’t available to sign. I once saw a minister sign her own paycheck because the church treasurer was out of town. She did so begrudgingly and in the presence of the rest of the church board.

  6. O-FISH-L

    Dan, you’re right. Although larceny over $250 and forgery are felonies and arrestable on probable cause, my guess is that a prudent officer would –at most– file a police report and request a hearing before a district court clerk magistrate. The C/M would then determine whether charges should issue. It’s been my experience –especially with a first offender– that almost all clerks try to “work things out” in order to resolve matters quickly, reduce court congestion, and keep the first time defendant from having a criminal record. If the clerk doesn’t issue charges, the defendant is not arraigned, and therefore the incident doesn’t appear on CORI.

    Officers with “writer’s cramp” might tell the complainant of every citizen’s right to request a criminal court hearing, with no police report or assistance, which would also result in a C/M making a determination, see above. Officer’s with the “biggest broom” would tell the complainant that the police and criminal courts can’t be bothered with this internal union stuff and that the best course would be to handle it in small claims or as an internal union matter.

    Either way, it’s small potatoes to the local PD, especially if it’s a one time occurrence. I agree with gilded that a recall election would have been the best remedy. Perhaps the accusers weren’t confident that the entire membership would oust him.

  7. bigyaz

    Joey: Seriously? A CEO would be fired for allowing such practices as a single misuse of a credit card for $254, signing another name on his own paycheck, or (gasp!) being slow to provide receipts?

    There’s obviously so much more going on here. I can’t believe you’re that naive.

  8. Are all bloggers this lazy?

    From what I read in this blog, it does not seem that Dan Kennedy bothered to contact anyone involved in the trial board proceedings before raising his questions. Perhaps, he might try to play the part of reporter for once and call around to find out if this was indeed politically motivated. Dan, you say you’d like someone to dig into this. Well, be my guest. Let’s see what you dig up.

  9. Joey

    As I noted in my very first sentence, BigYaz, I’m not that naive. This was a pretense so Totten could be removed for whatever internal political reasons the union had– but it’s a very legitimate pretense.

    It’s not the actual infractions that matter, although forging someone else’s name on your paycheck is colossally stupid. It’s that the CEO *allowed a climate where such infractions could happen.* That’s what can get someone fired, because it’s what a prosecutor can use to start investigating the organization.

    Sorry you didn’t understand all that. I’ll use smaller words next time.

  10. Whatzreelyup?

    How does the Boston Guild spell s-c-a-p-e-g-o-a-t?
    Guild officers would be @ the front of the line to protest one of their own being ‘fired’ for 3 such stupid, but mediocre, transgressions. The checkbook double-sig requirement is in most Guild bylaws.
    The double standard will come when that section of the bylaw is soon changed – by the very people who dismissed Totten! – to allow an additional/alternate signature to be available so a pay/expense check can be cashed. Nobody else will want to be the new Prez without it, now that they’ve seen the drama of such ‘brotherly’ love.

  11. Newshound

    It seems apparent they just wanted Totten’s dismissal.

    Regardless of the signature on the paycheck, if it was fulfilling a union liability, and the law, to pay an employee in a timely manner, so what. I know, rules are rules.

    And, $254 for an executive – – – I know, inappropriate charges are a violation – but were these discretionary, work related gray area charges? A hair cut, a necktie – that’s a violation – discretionary office supplies – – – that means they were trying to bag him.

    Without seeing the charge slips and knowing the whole story, we don’t know the story. Us curious types would like to know.

    Mr. Totten – we’re all ears here!

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Newshound: I’m remaining neutral, but you should read what Maria Cramer had to tell Adam Reilly — not just the excerpt I quoted, but the whole thing. Something to think about.

  12. As the Globe Turns

    Dan, this is a non-story for lots of reasons, the least of which is that there were at least two separate pushes to recall Totten for his stunning mishandling of the union negotiations and inexcusable lack of communication.

    The union trial just expedited the process.

    He was widely seen as more of a hindrance than a truly effective leader, more of a blowhard than a negotiator. Whether he had unspoken motives for sticking to such a hard line — at the likely expense of the contract’s final terms — will likely never be heard.

    A more interesting story is the rift that Totten helped foster between editorial and advertising/marketing/circulation.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      A more interesting story is the rift that Totten helped foster between editorial and advertising/marketing/circulation.

      Agreed! That’s a great story. And I hope someone does it.

      But Totten’s ouster is hardly a non-story.

  13. Newshound

    Thanks Dan. Read it. Still sounds spooky. A non-story some say? When the Boston Globe professionals hold a Kangaroo Court with a guilty verdict of $254? And now a fine?

    This is not to allege that the union is dissatisfied and as such shouldn’t be entitled to make a change, or that there isn’t some minor infraction or flaw on Mr. Totten’s part, but his job and role even if not performed to the excellence desired by some or many union members, was most likely quite stressful and occupying earlier this year and most likely beyond the point of coming out fair and square within $254.

    It seems that with such a major story and number of events that surrounded Mr. Totten and the union’s request to take a $20 million cut earlier this year, that the issue of $254 by comparison is a story, too, because now the integrity of either the union, Mr. Totten or both are on the line. To me that’s ironic, and news.

  14. Disappointed

    Dan. To see you use the word “idiot” is very disappointing. You yourself have commented on the tone of comment boards. The person did not make any personally offensive comments about you in his/her request to have you do some digging. Not sure why you felt the need to go there. It hurts your credibility.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      Disappointed: Tell you what — let’s split the difference. I was offended by his comment. I am an unpaid blogger who tries to bang out an observation or two in between classes, grading, advising students, research and other things I’m supposed to be doing. You take it for what it’s worth. Anyone who thinks I’m supposed to walk away from my day job to go on an unpaid reporting mission really hasn’t given any thought to what it is I do or to the purpose of this blog.

      But I’ll grant you that I shouldn’t have called him an idiot.

  15. Bill S

    They are still using checks, not direct deposit?–no wonder the Globe is losing $ like crazy. Direct deposit saves the company tons of money, and avoids this whole “signature” thing! This is so telling about both the Globe and the union and where they are stuck at.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Bill S: This has nothing to do with the Globe. The Guild is an entirely separate operation, and in fact the Globe isn’t the only unit in the Boston branch.

  16. A Globie

    Who are these people commenting on the Globe union’s situation? Are they members of the Guild? This is an internal union matter. It’s not subject to the knee-jerk opinions of anonymous members of the public who know none of the details of this private business. I realize that anything that goes on at the Globe is going to be news, but come on, folks, get the facts before you mouth off.
    I DO happen to be a member of the Boston Newspaper Guild, and I signed both petitions to recall and remove Dan Totten as our union president. I did so because Dan’s leadership during this year’s contract negotiations was extremely poor and did not serve the best interests of the majority of members. He appeared to be negotiating with a secret agenda of protecting the interests of a small number of union members while ignoring the wishes and needs of the majority. He frequently either ignored communications from members or became defensive and combative with members whose opinions he disliked. He attempts to “rally” the union members consisted of expressing his personal anger at tactics of the Globe/Times negotiators rather than communicating matters of actual substance that mattered to anyone in the union.
    I don’t think anyone blames him for the kind of contract we ended up with. But he is very much to blame for prolonging the process, egging members into voting no on the first negotiated deal, and bringing on the ruinous 23 percent pay cut. (Other Globe unions negotiated quickly and their presidents told members to vote yes because it was the best they could get.) I give Dan credit for getting the company back to the table to re-negotiate, but all he accomplished there was to undo the damage he had done. Yet, still, he tried to sink the second contract vote — fortunately, most members knew better by then.
    That’s why I — and I presume why other union members — signed the petitions to to recall him. Dan’s response to this effort, by the way, was to call it illegitimate, to raise objections to the manner and style in which it was done, and to brush off all the members’ criticisms. So, the whole petition process was done a second time, making sure to strictly follow the union bylaws. The petition got more than enough signatures, and the organizers were ready to proceed — until the trial put that effort on hold.
    Throughout the petition process, the union board had steadfastly supported Dan and opposed the recall petition. Then, suddenly, the worm turned when Dan flouted his fellow officers’ authority and signed that check. The other union officers apparently realized that they had a fiduciary responsibility to take action, and they did.
    The recall effort and the trial had nothing to do with each other, except that both were the result of Totten’s obstinate, arrogant, uncooperative, and uncommunicative behavior. Dan might have been able to dodge the recall effort — who knows? — but by signing that check, he gave the board, as well as a majority of the members, a clear issue to act upon.
    I have to add: I have nothing against Dan personally. I doubt many people do. I wasn’t on the jury, didn’t take any part in the trial, and was not an organizer of the recall effort. I wish him well, and hope he finds a path to recovery from his destructive behavior patterns. This is all business — he’s just not the right person to lead our union.

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