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Hoffa Cleared of Charges, Is Free to Pursue Teamsters Post

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James P. Hoffa has been cleared by a federal election officer to seek the Teamsters union presidency, making him the front-runner to win the post formerly held by his father, legendary Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa.

Michael G. Cherkasky, the court-appointed election monitor, ruled that finance violations by Hoffa’s campaign were not serious enough to warrant his disqualification from the rerun of the 1996 race he narrowly lost to Ron Carey.

However, Cherkasky levied thousands of dollars of fines against Hoffa’s campaign and barred his top spokesman, Richard Leebove, from further participation in the campaign.

Cherkasky also said that Hoffa “did not testify accurately” about the concealment of a $1,000 campaign contribution from former Teamsters President William McCarthy.

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Carey was disqualified from the rerun election when another court official ruled in November that Carey had been aware of a fund-raising scheme. So far three campaign aides have pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges.

Carey is on unpaid leave from the 1.4-million-member union while he fights the charges against him.

Carey’s administration was dealt another blow Monday when a federal grand jury in Manhattan indicted his former top lobbyist, William W. Hamilton Jr., on six felony counts related to the scheme.

Hamilton is accused of conspiracy, embezzlement of Teamsters funds, mail fraud, wire fraud, lying to the election officer and perjury in his grand jury testimony. Prosecutors allege he helped divert $885,000 in Teamsters funds to political organizations in exchange for their $327,500 in contributions to the Carey campaign--a form of political money-laundering.

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The grand jury investigation is continuing, U.S. Atty. Mary Jo White said Monday in announcing Hamilton’s indictment.

Hamilton’s lawyer, J. Robert Gage, did not return a call for comment Monday, but Hamilton, 55, has previously denied wrongdoing. He faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted. His arraignment will be May 7.

The probe of Hoffa began after Carey aides had accused his camp of the same kinds of fund-raising abuses that tainted Carey’s election.

Cherkasky, a veteran New York prosecutor and chief operating officer of the investigative firm Kroll Associates, said his months-long investigation “did not find evidence of large-scale cheating or other improprieties to warrant disqualification.”

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Most of Hoffa’s contributions appeared to be from legitimate sources, Cherkasky said.

“This investigation found that I am an honest man who ran an honest campaign,” Hoffa, 56, said in a statement Monday.

In a telephone interview, Hoffa added that Hamilton’s indictment “is indicative of the type of corruption we were running against.” He said his candidacy offers a chance to unify the dissension-torn Teamsters.

But Ken Hall, Hoffa’s opponent, Monday called on him to quit the race: “Teamsters members deserve much better than a candidate who was found eligible by the skin of his teeth after being caught lying under oath and engaging in serious misconduct.”

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Hall, 41, of Yawkey, W.Va., was the leader--along with Carey--of last summer’s popular Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service. He called himself “the only candidate for president who was not part of the wrongdoing by both sides in the 1996 election.”

Cherkasky ruled that Leebove, Hoffa’s spokesman, had improperly contributed $167,675 to the campaign by under-billing for his services. Cherkasky ordered the campaign to pay a remedial fine of $16,767.

The election officer also fined Hoffa $5,286 for failing to report $43,868 in contributions from various sources and for concealing the McCarthy contribution. Cherkasky also ordered a special notice about the contribution, to be published in the next issue of the Teamsters magazine.

Cherkasky levied an additional $20,185 fine against the campaigns of Hoffa and one of his ballot mates for making unreported payments to Kevin Currie, a felon, by routing them through his wife.

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Michael Belzer, a University of Michigan labor researcher, said that while Carey was “held to the ‘you-should-have-known’ standard” in his disqualification, Hoffa appeared to receive lighter treatment.

He said Hall faces an “uphill struggle” against an opponent with a more entrenched organization and far superior name recognition.

Belzer added that further charges from the New York grand jury could throw the election--unscheduled but expected this summer--into disarray.

New York labor consultant Greg Tarpinian, a frequent critic of Carey, said that indictments against Carey or more of his aides “would make it difficult for Hall to dissociate himself” from the scandal.

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