CLEVELAND — Teamsters President Jackie Presser was one of the nation's most controversial union chiefs when he died in 1988. At the time, he was under indictment on racketeering charges, a case his attorney had staved off by citing his role for more than a decade as a secret informant for the FBI.
Now, a dispute over his surprisingly large $4.2-million estate has surfaced in state court. It is Presser's ironic legacy: The case has divided his family and involves potential criminality on the part of his wife, Cynthia.
The court proceedings have arisen from the lavish lifestyle that characterized the old-guard Teamster chieftain, and a widow who refused to change that style after he succumbed to brain cancer. Cynthia Presser--his fifth wife--has admitted misusing hundreds of thousands of dollars from the estate and violating her duties as its executor.
So blatant has been her conduct that a probate judge recently asked the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office to investigate Cynthia Presser for possible embezzlement.
The case occurs at a time when frugality in the nation's largest trade union is being stressed by a new Teamster president, Ron Carey, who was elected on his pledge to reduce spending, cut costs and stamp out corruption.
The dispute over the estate started with a civil proceeding filed by John R. Climaco, Jackie Presser's former attorney and confidant, and by Presser's two children from a previous marriage.
In a deposition filed in the case, Cynthia Presser said she has spent $369,227 on clothes, decorating and furniture during her term as executor of Presser's estate. Another $225,000 went to an ex-husband and other relatives of hers.
"I know these look like exorbitant expenses," she said in her sworn statement. "But my life with my late husband provided me a life like that, and I continued to live that life and that contributed to these expenses."
Although she was bequeathed a substantial sum by her late husband, Cynthia Presser acknowledged she went beyond her inheritance by dipping into funds that were set aside for her stepchildren, Gary and Bari Presser.
In her sworn statement, Cynthia Presser said her living expenses have averaged $10,000 a month. In addition, she said she bought a $10,000 diamond engagement ring for her son by a previous marriage to give his fiancee and purchased a $629,000 lakefront home for herself outside Cleveland. She told of buying a fur stole worth $3,000 in 1989 and spending $2,900 to have a larger closet built for her clothes.
She flew frequently to Arizona in the winter, she said. In addition, she gave untold thousands of dollars--in outright gifts or loans--to her parents, other relatives and friends, she testified.
Describing the lifestyle the Pressers enjoyed, a one-time close associate of the late Teamster chief said in an interview: "They lived in a Washington condo paid for by the international union. It was fully furnished and decorated in style, along with fine china, silverware and crystal provided by the union. There were expensive paintings on the walls and other artworks.
"She and Jackie got used to all-expense-paid vacations and frequent business trips to California or Florida in the winter. The union footed the bill for their accommodations at the finest hotels and resorts, and they were picked up by limousine anywhere their Teamsters' Gulfstream jet landed."
How did Jackie Presser amass an estate of more than $4 million while holding union posts his entire adult life?
Court records are silent on the matter, the ex-associate said. "Jackie spent union funds lavishly but was frugal with his own money. He had what amounted to an unlimited expense account and, therefore, could save most of his union salary, which was considerable."
In the years leading up to his death, Presser drew about $800,000 annually in pay. This included his $250,000 salary as general president of the Teamsters, as well as pay from union posts he held.
Associates said he also made a profit of more than $1 million from his investment in the 1970s in Cleveland's Front Row Theater. He earned no fees from the 10 years he served as a secret informant for the FBI, providing information on mobsters and Teamster rivals.
The court records show that Cynthia Presser also is engaged in a legal dispute with current union officials over the whereabouts and ownership of some expensive furnishings that once adorned their Washington condo. She is facing allegations that she shipped many of these union-provided items to her home.
She agreed several months ago to pay $350,000 into Presser's children's trust funds, as well as $200,000 in overdue legal fees. But--unable to do so--she filed for personal bankruptcy and was removed as executor of the estate.
Now she is facing possible indictment in state court on grounds that she embezzled more than $570,000.