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NEWS ANALYSIS

Recent Teamsters Troubles Raise Concern About U.S. Oversight

September 20, 1997|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since the Justice Department settled its civil racketeering lawsuit against the Teamsters union in 1989, the legendary labor organization has operated under the watchful eyes of federal overseers. Along the way, these officials have spent more than $70 million in Teamster members' dues and taxpayer dollars to try to clean up a traditionally corruption-plagued union.

Given that, this week's guilty pleas in federal court by three associates of Teamsters President Ron Carey in a complex election finance scheme raise an important question: What are taxpayers and union members getting for their money? And, more fundamentally, is the Teamsters union a better outfit today than it was eight years ago?

The good news is that most observers acknowledge that the 1.4-million-member organization, the nation's largest private-sector union, is far more hoodlum-free than it once was.

"Nobody's ready to declare victory here, but it's an ongoing effort that maintains a considerably better posture than back in the days when a high percentage of IBT [Teamster] presidents went to jail," said William H. Webster, one of the three members of the Teamsters' Independent Review Board impaneled to fight mob influence in the union.

Webster, a Washington lawyer who formerly headed both the CIA and FBI, pointed to charges brought by the review board against 209 union officials and members over the last five years. In all, 134 have been permanently ousted from the union or pressured to resign, often because of suspected mob ties.

What's more, of Carey's six predecessors, three went to prison and one died under indictment. Those convicted included the late Jimmy Hoffa, the father of Carey's rival in last year's controversial election, James P. Hoffa.

Although the revelations by the Carey political operatives are distressing, the available evidence doesn't suggest corruption anywhere near the scale that once existed, said Michael Belzer, a Teamsters follower and labor expert at the University of Michigan.

Before 1989, he said, "the union really was dominated by organized crime and by labor racketeers."

In sizing up corruption, he said, "I want to know if people are misusing power to make a profit and selling workers or constituents out to do it. I think that's the test, and I'm not seeing that" in the operations of the Teamsters anymore.

One sign of the change, Belzer said, is that the Teamsters has become a more grass-roots organization, and members are being enlisted in worker-organizing efforts.

All the same, Thursday's courtroom revelations suggest a political campaign operation that ran wild in its effort to help Carey win his bid for a second five-year term last year. The three who pleaded guilty--Carey's former campaign manager, Jere Nash, and two political consultants--disclosed efforts to illegally divert union funds into Carey's campaign with the help of top Democratic fund-raisers and the AFL-CIO.

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Carey has not been accused of any crime, and he denies having had any knowledge of his campaign staff's illicit activities. His aides point to a statement Nash made in court that if improper contributions had been brought to the attention of officials "in the approval chain"--presumably including Carey--they would have been rejected.

Still, the federal election monitor, Barbara Zack Quindel, voided his election victory in the 1996 contest against James P. Hoffa due to the possible influence of tainted campaign dollars. She recently said she also is looking anew into whether Carey, because of potential personal ties to the scheme, should be disqualified from competing in the rerun Teamsters presidential election expected to be held late this year or next year.

Hoffa backers and some other outside observers criticize Quindel for her alleged reluctance to find fault with the Carey campaign camp and for clearing Carey in a previous review, even when she called for a new election.

"There really was a mess-up in the government monitoring of the international, and now they're trying to play catch-up," said Greg Tarpinian, a New York-based consultant to labor unions.

The Carey political operatives, he added, "wouldn't have done it if they didn't think they could get away with it."

Perhaps more troubling are questions raised about the Independent Review Board's handling of complaints against Carey.

In 1994, the panel cleared Carey of allegations that his own rise to power was stained by Mafia connections, but questions about the union leader's past have persisted. Left unanswered was how Carey managed to accumulate substantial real estate holdings while heading his old union local in New York.

Critics ask whether the Clinton administration and, previously, the Bush administration pressured Teamster overseers to ignore abuses by Carey or his associates. Their theory is that federal officials are convinced that no other Teamster leader but Carey is capable of ridding the union of corruption.

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