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Teamsters Get a Golden Opportunity to Sever Mob Ties

If U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy were alive today, surely there would be a smile of grim satisfaction on his face. That’s because, at last, there is a real chance of success in the struggle he began 30 years ago to break ties between the giant Teamsters Union and the underworld.

The last chapter of the bizarre history of corruption in the 1.4-million-member union hasn’t been written yet. But the cleanup Kennedy worked so hard to achieve is under way and the Mafia will not easily, if ever, regain the influence it once had in the union.

What could be the end of the not-so-beautiful romance between the Teamsters and the Mafia came last week in the settlement of the Justice Department’s suit filed against the union last summer under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). As part of the agreement, three court-appointed administrators will soon move into the union’s handsome headquarters in Washington with far-reaching authority to supervise union operations and remove from office any leader they have “just cause” to believe is tied to mobsters.

Teamster members will pay up to $2 million annually for the policing of their officers by the administrators.

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There are going to be more strange twists in the Teamster story as the top echelon officers battle each other for power.

The government relented on its demand that five of the top 18 officials resign immediately as a condition of the out-of-court settlement, but Randy M. Mastro, the assistant U.S. attorney handling the case, doesn’t characterize that as a major concession. Maybe not; but if the government had developed a case more certain to bring about convictions in court, perhaps concessions would not have been necessary.

The original suit filed last summer was so sweeping that it called not only for the removal of those accused of direct links to the mob but also of the other top officers who were charged only with failure to try to break what the government flamboyantly labeled a “devil’s pact with La Cosa Nostra.”

Nevertheless, after all these years, the union’s members are finally going to have some real voice in the election of their officers through a nationwide, one member, one vote system to elect national and regional officers.

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The government also dropped a demand for an immediate election of new officers. The election won’t come until the next regularly scheduled one in 1991.

That may not be bad because it does take time for candidates to prepare and campaign for the first election of its kind in the history of the 90-year-old union, an election sought for years by the small but determined Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

The incumbent Teamsters president, William McCarthy, 69, is said to be in poor health so his availability for the 1991 presidential contest is uncertain.

Secretary-Treasurer Weldon Mathis, 63, is in apparent good health and has not been accused of having any mob ties. He and two vice presidents signed separate agreements with the government dropping them from the racketeering suit.

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Mathis says he isn’t sure he will run for president, but if he does, he will have to fight hard for the post.

A measure of the intensity of the internal feuding was the remark by one well-in formed union insider--once a Mathis supporter--that Mathis is “dead meat” as a candidate because of the agreement he made with the Justice Department.

However, even more revealing of the intensity of the internal fight are the ugly squabbles going on between the “loyalists” who pledged unity in the fight against the government’s suit.

One insider said the bitterness between McCarthy and Mathis pales when compared to the antagonism between the Teamster president and Joe Trerotola, the 79-year-old vice president who helped put McCarthy in office. Trerotola backed McCarthy primarily to keep out Mathis, who was becoming known as a reform leader.

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Trerotola and McCarthy never liked one another, and Trerotola’s anger turned to rage when McCarthy two weeks ago agreed with the government’s demand for the ouster of Trerotola and four other Teamster vice presidents who allegedly have the closest ties with the underworld.

The demand was dropped by the government in the final settlement, but that didn’t appease the influential Trerotola.

Despite the failure of the government to immediately oust several of the officers as planned, major changes have already been made in the union hierarchy. Two top-echelon Teamsters officials with alleged mob ties have already left the union, and four others are expected to leave soon, at least partly because of the government’s flimsy suit against the union.

Weak as the government suit seemed to be, it set off the bitter internal feuding that helped bring about the resignations and the out-of-court settlement reached last week, just hours before the trial was to begin.

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The vast majority of the 700 Teamster locals around the country were doing and still do an honest, effective job of representing their members, and now there is a real possibility that the taint of the underworld can be removed from the top level of the powerful union.

The outside administrators can help the cleanup, but ultimately it will be up to rank and file members to make sure the stain of corruption is entirely eliminated--something that would have been extremely difficult but still possible under the old, tightly controlled system of electing the union leadership.


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