CLEVELAND — A federal judge has granted an indefinite delay in the trial of Teamsters President Jackie Presser after his lawyer submitted sealed medical records suggesting that his client's health may be declining, The Times learned Friday.
Sources close to the case said that the records dealt with Presser's periodic cancer treatments since his surgery last January for removal of two lung tumors. However, the specific status of Presser's health remains unclear.
John R. Climaco, Presser's attorney and general counsel of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, declined comment when asked if Presser's health was an issue, and William Lynch, a senior Justice Department attorney, also refused to discuss the matter.
'Not an Issue Yet'
But U.S. District Judge George W. White, who postponed the trial after an hourlong closed hearing, told The Times that he had received some medical reports under seal from Climaco. However, he added that Presser's health "is not an issue yet" and declined to answer questions about it on grounds of confidentiality.
A high Teamster official told The Times recently that tumors removed from Presser's lung last winter were deemed "pre-cancerous" and that doctors recommended a limited amount of radiation, followed by chemotherapy, to prevent cancer from developing. The official said Friday that a recent examination detected no presence of cancerous cells.
Another source familiar with the hearing said: "You've got to assume that if a man is well enough to run the nation's largest trade union, he's well enough to stand trial."
White said that he decided to close the hearing, which follows four open pretrial hearings in recent months, to permit discussion of Presser's health and to talk about some confidential FBI files that defense lawyers have been pressing the Justice Department to provide.
The judge said he decided to postpone the trial indefinitely to delve further into Climaco's claims that he has a right to have more confidential Justice Department and FBI records before Presser goes on trial on charges of siphoning off $700,000 in union funds to pay mob-related "ghost employees" who performed no work for the Teamsters.
Was Informant for FBI
Presser was a secret informant for the FBI on organized crime matters from about 1972 to 1985. Climaco has said in open court that he will defend Presser on grounds that FBI agents in Cleveland authorized him to keep certain non-working employees on the union payroll.
The Justice Department has claimed that the FBI agents who handled Presser as an informant concocted this story at a later date to keep him from being indicted. One former agent, Robert S. Friedrick, has been indicted for lying under oath.
Presser and two longtime associates--Tony Hughes, a union business agent, and Harold Friedman, an international vice president--had been scheduled to go on trial Aug. 10. They were indicted more than 14 months ago, but defense attorneys waived their rights to a speedy trial to allow them more time to seek and examine confidential government files.
Judge White said he will conduct another hearing in Presser's case in open court on Sept. 29 for further defense arguments about government documents the defense is seeking. Justice Department lawyers have told White that they already have turned over voluminous files to the defendants and that nothing more is due them.
White said he did not know whether Presser's health would be discussed Sept. 29. But he expressed determination that, if it became a factor in the trial, all details will be made public.
'Prognosis Is Bleak'
Some highly placed law enforcement officials in Washington are known to believe that Presser, who will be 61 next month, is more ill than he would like his 1.6 million members to believe. One official said he has been told that Presser's "prognosis is bleak," adding that he had entered the Cleveland Clinic on at least one occasion recently under an assumed name.
Robert L. Jackson reported from Cleveland and Ronald J. Ostrow from Washington.