WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Wednesday challenged claims by the leadership of the Teamsters Union that a proposed civil racketeering lawsuit aimed at putting the labor organization under federal control would harm its 1.7 million members.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Arnold I. Burns said in a statement that "the government has been and would be deeply concerned with protecting the legitimate interests of the union members."
Without referring to a massive national rally that the Teamsters staged Tuesday in Cincinnati to protest Justice Department plans for taking control of the union, Burns said that "such legitimate interests (of the members) include making certain that a union is not used to facilitate racketeering enterprises."
"Such use deprives the union members of their lawful rights," he said.
Teamsters President Jackie Presser and officers of other unions said at Tuesday's rally that a civil action filed under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970 could deprive rank-and-file members of bargaining powers and their right to select their own officers.
If such a suit were successful, a federal judge would place the Teamsters, the nation's largest trade union, under a court-supervised trusteeship after ousting Presser and all other members of the Teamsters governing board, authorities have said.
Some Democratic and Republican presidential candidates supported the Teamsters Union in its announced effort to head off the suit, which would be an unprecedented action in U.S. labor history.
Burns, in his statement, sought to play down reports that interdepartmental rivalry had led to a decision to place further preparations for the lawsuit in the hands of U.S. Atty. Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York.
Without denying it in general, Burns termed "erroneous" a New York press report that officials thought U.S. Atty. Joseph DiGenova of the District of Columbia had moved too slowly on the lawsuit. Burns said the suit, if it is filed, would be the result of "a team effort."
Another official, who asked not to be identified, told The Times that DiGenova had been prepared to file suit on behalf of the department last July 1 but that his plan was held up because a criminal trial in New York that involves the Teamsters Union is still in progress.
That case involves allegations that Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno, reputed head of the Mafia's Genovese family, controlled Presser's first election as Teamster president in 1983 as well as that of his predecessor, Roy L. Williams. Giuliani's office has amassed considerable evidence of Teamster corruption as a result of that case, the official said.