Change the Teamsters can believe in

Wall Street Journal reporters Brody Mullins and Kris Maher reported in early May how Barack Obama won the Teamsters’ endorsement for president. In a meeting earlier this year, he privately “told the union that he supported ending the strict federal oversight imposed to root out corruption[.]” Obama holds himself out as a new kind of politician who refuses to play the old games. The story should have blown Obama’s pretense up several times over, but it has generated next to no coverage.

The Teamsters union of course has had a long and storied relationship with the Mafia. To take just one vivid example, consider the case of Anthony Senter. Senter was the Mafia hit man who arranged a deal with a Teamsters local for a pension after he was convicted of being a member of a mob hit squad in New York City that committed 25 murders and dismembered most of the victims.

Senter’s attempt to secure a pension from his friends at the Teamsters was disrupted in 1994 by the Independent Review Board. The IRB is the body created by a 1989 consent decree to monitor the Teamsters for corruption. Since 1999 the Teamsters has sought to have the consent decree dissolved. The Department of Justice has not thought that such a good idea. The Teamsters would like new leadership at the Department of Justice with a better attitude.

The Teamsters agreed to the decree with the government. The decree was entered into before, and signed by, Judge David Edelstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The consent decree resolved the government’s prosecution of the Teamsters for racketeering.

Certain provisions of the decree were enforced by a permanent injunction. The injunction ordered the Teamsters to refrain from racketeering activity (as defined under federal law) and from knowingly associating with the Mafia. The consent decree also provided for the creation of the three-member IRB in 1992. The jurisdiction of the IRB is limited to the prevention of corruption, including bribery, embezzlement, extortion, loan sharking, and other serious violations of federal law, or control and influence of the Teamsters by the Mafia.

The page-one Wall Street Journal story by Mullins and Maher turned a spotlight on the Teamsters’ endorsement of Barack Obama. According to the Journal, Obama advised the Teamsters prior to its endorsement of him that he supported dissolving the permanent injunction to which the Teamsters agreed in 1989 and under which it has been operating ever since. Dissolution of the consent decree would require judicial blessing, but if the government were to seek dissolution of the decree, it would be highly likely to secure it.

Taking a leaf from the Clinton scandal management playbook, the Obama campaign dismissed the Journal story as old news. Even if it was old news, the Journal story provided the detail and attention that the story richly deserved.

In 2002, the left-wing Nation magazine frankly condemned Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa’s goal of eliminating federal oversight of the Teamsers as “a bad idea.” It still is. Are the corruption and exploitation of the Teamsters no longer a serious threat? Someone really should ask Barack Obama why not.

The Nation article noted that in May 2002 the IRB permanently barred from the union two of Hoffa’s closest associates (William Hogan Jr., president of Chicago’s Joint Council 25, and Dane Passo, Hoffa’s former Midwest campaign manager and special assistant). According to the article, they were disciplined for trying over an extended period of time to force the Las Vegas local to permit a mob-linked labor broker (of which Hogan’s brother was vice president) to provide low-wage, nonunion workers for convention setup work, thus threatening to undermine the Teamsters contract and displace union members.

Following Mullins and Maher’s Wall Street Journal story, John Judis revisited the 2002 incident that showed the continuing threat that corruption poses to the Teamsters, and therefore the continuing need for the IRB. Judis raised two salient issues regarding Obama’s pledge to the Teamsters:

The first is procedural. Obama’s promise to close down the IRB suggests a Bush-like contempt for the customary relationship between government and the judicial process. The president himself can’t shut down the IRB. He can only recommend to his attorney general that he recommend to the U.S. Attorney in New York that it be shut down. But in these kind of touchy matters, presidents usually defer to the judgment of their attorney generals. By coming close to promising a shutdown, Obama was putting politics above judicial procedure–which is just the kind of “Washington” behavior that he likes to criticize his opponents for doing.

The second reason for concern is more substantive. Labor leaders have made plausible arguments for shutting down the IRB, but a Chicago politician should be extremely wary of acceding to them. If there is continuing mob influence in the Teamsters, it is probably centered in the Chicago area. And in the last decade, the Teamsters in Chicago have shown little enthusiasm for rooting out corruption in their ranks. As a veteran Chicago politician surrounded by a veteran Chicago campaign staff, Obama had to have known this–and that makes his warm words to the Teamsters all the more disturbing.

Judis’s discussion of the related events in the linked article is also worth reading.

Former Teamster William Hogan stands at the center of the 2002 incident that shows the continuing Mafia threat to the Teamsters. In a letter to the New Republic, where Judis’s article appeared, Hogan describes the IRB allegations against him in connection with the 2002 incident as “discredited.” Responding yesterday, Judis commented:

Mr. Hogan accuses me of “recycling discredited allegations by the controversial government ‘watchdog,’ the Independent Review Board.” And the question to ask is: “Discredited by whom?” In 2002, the IRB, which was created by agreement between the Teamsters and the Justice Department to root out corruption and organized crime influence in the union, barred Hogan and his close associate Dane Passo from any future association with the Teamsters.

The IRB found that the two men tried to get the Teamsters local 631 in Las Vegas, which provided workers to convention shows, to allow Richard Simon, a Chicago labor broker, to provide non-union workers to conventions. The workers, which would be provided by Simon’s United Temps, would not receive benefits or overtime. All in all, they would earn less than half of the Teamster workers; and under the labor agreement that the Teamsters had with the conventions, Simon’s cut-rate contract could then become the standard for all convention employees. The Teamsters would be screwed, but Simon would come out ahead, and so would Hogan’s brother Michael, who was the vice president of Simon’s company, and also the head of a convention company that would be hiring Simon’s workers. No agreement was signed because the IRB began an investigation and Ed Stier, the head of the Teamsters’ internal oversight group, warned that Simon might be “involved with some crime figures in Chicago, that he was a bad guy.”

In its decision, the IRB concluded that “Passo and Hogan colluded with Simon to enable Simon to profit from paying his workers below the rate the governing Teamster contract required. Passo’s and Hogan’s actions, which Local 631 officials fought, were designed to benefit United and the trade show contractors, including Hogan’s brother’s company, There was no benefit to Local 631, its members or the United employees.” Hogan, of course, disputed these findings. Advancing arguments similar to those in his letter, Hogan appealed the IRB’s decision to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. When that court ruled against him, Hogan appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, but it, too, rejected his arguments against the IRB ruling. “Having carefully reviewed the hearing record,” the Appeals Court wrote, “we concluded that the IRB’s findings are supported by substantial evidence, are not arbitrary or capricious, and plainly demonstrate that Hogan and Passo were negotiating a contract that they knew would have harmed the union.” So the question remains: allegations discredited by whom?

As for Obama, Judis concludes: “Either he is guilty of willful ignorance about a powerful segment of the Chicago political scene, or he is, for better or worse, another example of that well known species, politicus hypocriticus.” The New Republic has posted the exchange between Hogan and Judis here, and it should be read in its entirety.

Some Democrats recently sought the impeachment of an attorney general for politicizing justice by the firing of eight United States Attorneys. Many Democrats joined in driving the attorney general from office on the charge. Judis to the contrary notwithstanding, I believe the charge was bogus in the case of Alberto Gonzales. But Democrats are now about to nominate a presidential candidate who is engaged in something that looks very much like the genuine article, with the appearance of corruption thrown in for good measure.

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