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Teamsters Trying to Throw Roadblocks in Front of Crackdown : Labor: Government efforts to clean up the union are meeting stiff opposition from its leaders, but the reforms are inching forward.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Teamsters Union Vice President Harold Friedman sat in the witness chair of a nearly empty federal courtroom and fought back the tears. “Am I still going to have a job--do I go on pension?” he asked plaintively.

One of the nation’s highest-paid unionists, Friedman, 68, was reeling from the pointed questions of a Justice Department lawyer about perks that he had extracted from his hometown Cleveland local after his conviction on federal racketeering charges last year.

Was it true, demanded prosecutor Randy M. Mastro, that Friedman secretly had engineered $300,000 in severance pay from his Ohio Teamsters in case a judge should remove him from office? Had his wife recently gone on the payroll, too--at $150,000 a year--in case Friedman later were ousted?

Finally, the hefty 6-foot-2 union leader could no longer hold back his emotions. “I’m . . . sitting here crying like a little girl--I never did this in my life,” he told U.S. District Judge David N. Edelstein. Never before had Friedman been questioned so closely about his conduct. “These things you’re asking me are not easy,” he pleaded to Mastro.

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Friedman is not the only Teamster who is being questioned closely these days. His own case--which unfolded with little notice last winter--parallels a broader government crackdown on the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which itself had never undergone such scrutiny until recently. And both Friedman and the Teamsters are chafing under the experience.

The intense government intervention--which is being watched closely by leaders of other labor unions, who are wary that it may set a precedent--grew out of a groundbreaking federal lawsuit filed in 1988, charging leaders of the 1.6-million-member union with maintaining ties to organized crime. To avert the possibility of a court order that might oust them from their jobs and pension benefits, Friedman and others on the union’s national executive board agreed to allow a three-member, court-appointed panel to oversee the organization’s affairs. In return, the Justice Department withdrew its suit.

Over the 14 months that the consent order has been in effect, however, the agreement has turned sour, both for the Teamsters as a group and for Friedman personally. The court-appointed overseers have suspended Friedman from his $500,000-a-year post and are forcing even more sweeping changes on the giant union, pressuring longtime leaders to get out and revamping the rules and procedures for elections. Never before has a national union--much less the country’s largest--been under such tight government controls.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Friedman and other Teamster leaders have been fighting these actions inch by inch, claiming that the procedures are much tougher than they foresaw and that they violate the union’s constitution. In a clearly orchestrated move, top Teamster officials have filed lawsuits in several key cities attacking the court agreement.

Under the terms of the original consent order, Edelstein was empowered to decide such appeals on his own, but now even that is up in the air: The union is asking the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York to nullify the judge’s authority.

The fierce opposition has managed to slow steps toward a thorough cleanup, but there still has been some progress to show for the effort.

Among the steps taken so far:

--Besides the suspension of Friedman, one of the nation’s most powerful Teamsters, more than 20 other national and local officers have been charged with misconduct by Charles M. Carberry, the court-appointed “investigations officer” who is a former U.S. prosecutor. They include Theodore R. Cozza of Pittsburgh, Pa., and George J. Vitale of Detroit--both of whom, like Friedman, are union vice presidents--as well as four Teamster leaders in Chicago, four in New York and more than a dozen others in New Jersey, Connecticut, Michigan and Ohio.

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Most are charged with having longtime associations with organized crime bosses or with remaining in office after having been convicted of theft or embezzlement. All have requested formal hearings in advance of any expulsion. Another Teamster vice president, Daniel Ligurotis of Chicago, has been held in contempt of court for allegedly trying to impede court-ordered steps toward election reform.

--Frederick B. Lacey, the former federal judge who is serving as the court-appointed administrative officer under the consent order, has been conducting closed-door disciplinary hearings. But besides suspending Friedman and Tony Hughes, a close Friedman associate, Lacey has not yet formally ousted anyone from a union office, preferring instead to steer cautiously through uncharted waters. Three local officers, however, have resigned following Carberry’s initial investigations.

Under the court agreement, Lacey needs only to find “just cause” for removing union officers--a much lower threshold of proof than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” required for conviction in a criminal trial. “The resistance of the IBT leadership to the work of the court officers . . . has not lessened,” Lacey told Edelstein in a recent report. As a result, he reported, the three court officials “have found themselves distracted from their principal tasks” by having to defend legal challenges to their authority.

If the consent order is so onerous, then why did Teamster leaders voluntarily sign it?

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Critics contend that the union’s well-paid but aging hierarchy was worried that if the government were to win its lawsuit, then Teamster leaders who had been named as defendants might be removed from office without pay and be forced personally to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs that they had incurred.

Minutes of a closed-door Teamster board meeting obtained by The Times show that some older members were convinced that settling the suit would enable them to retire gracefully, with full pensions.

But the Teamsters became angry when the deal didn’t work that way in practice and Carberry disclosed that he intended to file charges against members of the ruling executive board. The union leaders sought legal advice on whether they could abrogate the court agreement on grounds that they had been deceived by Justice Department attorneys, but their outside counsel, Jed S. Rakoff of New York, advised against it. There was nothing in the agreement about an exemption for anyone, Rakoff said.

More embarrassing, in a remarkably blunt court filing, John R. Climaco, the union’s former general counsel, recently accused Teamster board members of having acted out of self-interest in settling the lawsuit. In New York court papers submitted on behalf of some of the organization’s 700 local unions, Climaco declared that the settlement resulted from “inherent and self-serving conflicts-of-interests” on the part of these board members, who he said acted mainly out of their own professional and financial concerns.

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Climaco argued in his brief that the consent order should not be binding upon the activities of local unions across the country, an issue that the New York appellate court is expected to decide later this year. Climaco, who was a protege of Jackie Presser, the late Teamster president, was replaced by James T. Grady when new president William J. McCarthy took office two years ago.

Some law enforcement officials, congressional watchdogs and labor law experts still are hopeful that the court-ordered reforms eventually will result in a cleaner, more democratic and less corrupt union. “I’m relatively optimistic that long-term reforms will come about, particularly with the (union) elections in 1991,” said a veteran Capitol Hill investigator who has followed the Teamsters for years. “That is, if Teamster officials don’t first wear down the court supervisors with all their legal challenges,” he added.

A federal enforcement official is similarly confident: “The IBT will be cleaned up because we have the law on our side,” he said. “It’s a combination of having disciplinary procedures in place that can result in dismissal of corrupt officers, and having an electoral process that will give members a voice in determining who their future leaders will be.”

Indeed, Michael H. Holland, a Chicago labor lawyer who is serving as court-appointed elections officer, has developed guidelines that would require all 700 Teamster locals to select delegates democratically for a national Teamster convention in June, 1991, at which candidates for the 21 highest-ranking positions in the union will be nominated.

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Previously, most delegates had “earned” the right to attend Teamster conventions, either by virtue of the local offices they held or because they were the cronies of Teamster leaders. It was they who selected the union’s national officers, often by acclamation. But under the new procedures, in December, 1991, Holland and his assistants will supervise the first direct, secret-ballot election of top Teamster officers by rank-and-file members.

“The new rules go farther than any labor union in the country presently goes to provide free and fair elections,” John Bell, a deputy to Holland, said.

Outsiders generally have given the government’s cleanup efforts above-average grades. Carl McKenry, a labor law specialist at the University of Miami, said that the Teamsters have been so infiltrated by organized crime for so many years that the court-ordered consent decree was “a necessary step” to get the union back on the right track.

“The Teamsters traditionally are a pretty tough bunch, so you’re not going to wind up with a totally pure union as a result of the court order,” McKenry said. “But I am mainly encouraged by the election process, because the open participation of all concerned should keep this organization from getting locked in (with organized crime) again.”

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Benjamin Aaron, a labor law professor at UCLA, said that the court-appointed officers have achieved “some limited success” in recent months but noted that disciplinary proceedings against individual Teamster officers “can be terribly time-consuming, given their propensity for litigating everything.”

Describing the task as Herculean, Aaron said: “It’s quite clear that cleaning up the Teamsters Union on a national basis is equivalent to cleaning the Augean stables of the gods, as Hercules was forced to do. The main hope, however, lies in giving a chance to the forces of democracy within the union.”

BACKGROUND Charging that the 18 top officials of the Teamsters had allowed their union to be corrupted by the Mafia, the Justice Department, in June, 1988, filed suit to oust any of the 18 found to have violated racketeering laws. After nine months of legal sparing, the two sides agreed to a settlement. It provided for direct election of officers and created a court-appointed panel to fight organized crime in the union. Most Teamsters leaders were pleased with the settlement because they did not have to cede power directly to the government. They did not foresee that the panel would use its power to look at Teamster books and interview members, searching for corruption at the top.


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