Politics

The Local

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The Wall Street Journal recently reported that last summer, Illinois Senator
Barack Obama told officials in the Teamsters union that he favored ending the
Independent Review Board (IRB) that was created in 1989 by the federal
government to rid the union of organized crime. Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for
Obama, confirmed the story, saying that the candidate believed that the IRB had
“run its course” because “organized crime influence in the union has
drastically declined.” The Teamsters subsequently endorsed Obama for president, in late
February.

Obama and the Teamsters bristled at suggestions that any deal was
made.  The Obama campaign also circulated a tape of a speech that Senator
Hillary Clinton made last March to the Teamsters saying “at some point the past
has to be opened,” but Clinton’s
statement, like those made by Senator John Kerry in 2004, stopped well short of
committing her to end oversight of the Teamsters. Based on the statements the
newspaper quoted, it is fair to assume that The
Wall Street Journal got the details right.

There are two reasons to be
concerned about Obama's actions here. 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.

 

The IRB achieved some success in policing the Teamsters. In its first decade, it
suspended or ousted more than 500 individual Teamsters and recommended that the
union place 27 locals under “trusteeship,” which consists of replacing the local’s
leadership with outsiders appointed by the international. It also instituted
democratic elections of the top officers in the union, and ordered the ouster
of former Teamster president Ron Carey for accepting illegal campaign donations
in his 1996 election defeat of James P. Hoffa, who succeeded Carey three years
later, and continues to lead the union today.

But Hoffa and the Teamster
leadership have chafed under government supervision. To build an argument for
getting rid of the IRB, Hoffa set up his own internal oversight group. It was
called RISE (or Respect, Integrity, Strength, and Ethics) and was run by a
former federal prosecutor and organized crime expert Ed Stier. In August 2001, Hoffa
said,
“It’s time for the government to move out. We’ve created programs where the
union is clean, and it’s time for us to get from under government supervision.”
And Hoffa, President Bush and Representative Peter Hoekstra, a conservative
Republican who chaired a key House subcommittee, began an elaborate courtship
aimed on Hoffa’s part at disbanding the IRB.

But Hoffa’s efforts were
derailed by a sensational IRB report that appeared late that year detailing the
efforts of Chicago Teamsters, working with a Chicago labor broker, Richard
Simon, whom Stier would later describe as “having ties to organized crime,” to
undermine a Teamster local in Las Vegas by negotiating non-union, low-wage
agreements to service the city’s numerous business conventions.  (I wrote an article, “Dirty Deal,” about this investigation in The New Republic on April 1, 2002.) The
arrangement was a clear breach of the union’s commitment under the National
Labor Relations Act to offer “fair representation” to its members. Yet Hoffa
and his top leadership initially aided the scheme by firing Las Vegas Teamster
officials who objected. Finally, the IRB expelled William Hogan, the President
of local 714, the most powerful Teamster in Chicago,
and forced the Teamsters to put a stop to the collusion between the Chicago officials and Simon in Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, Stier did feel
that he was making progress in his first years on the job, and it was not out
of the question to imagine that RISE could not merely supplement, but supplant
the IRB. In 2002, Teamster Spokesman Bret Caldwell told me that once the IRB was
shut down, RISE will "ensure that corruption is fully eliminated from the
union."  For Stier, however, those
hopes were dashed the next year when he began investigating Chicago-area
Teamster locals for corruption. As he later detailed in a report, Stier
discovered “multiple issues related to organized crime [and] corruption” in
Local 714, and similar issues in five other area locals. The report concluded,
“Issues related to organized crime infiltration and associated corruption in
the Chicago
area are numerous and cut across jurisdictional lines.” But in the fall of
2003, as Stier was still in the midst of his investigation, the Teamster
leadership began objecting vociferously to it, and in February 2004, Hoffa shut
it down.

That April, Stier and 20
other investigators and lawyers involved with RISE resigned in protest. In the
report that Stier subsequently issued, he put the blame for his departure on
Hoffa’s Executive Assistant and on the president of Chicago Joint Council 25 of
the Teamsters. He accused them of bowing to present from “the Chicago organized crime family--known as the
Chicago ‘Outfit’--[which] concluded that its interests in Teamster matters were
threatened by IBT investigative activities and had ordered those activities
shut down.”

Hoffa and the Teamsters
released a report of their own in 2005 dismissing Stier’s charges. And that’s
where matters would have stood--except for the IRB. Last October, the IRB
recommended that the Teamsters remove the leadership of the main target of
Stier’s probe, Local 714, and place the union in trusteeship.  It detailed numerous abuses by the union’s
leadership. Stier told the
Chicago Tribune, “I’m glad to see that the IRB is pursuing these corruption
issues in Chicago.
I think there is more to do.” The IRB’s actions, taken in the wake of Stier’s
resignation and the end of RISE, made a pretty good case that the IRB was still
needed.

All of this may be new
information for people who don’t live in Chicago,
but it can’t have been unknown to Obama and the Chicagoans who run his
campaign. Stier’s resignation and the IRB investigation, and the charges of
corruption and organized crime have been covered over the years by Chicago Tribune reporter Stephen
Franklin and other local journalists. Yet the taint of corruption and of ties
to organized crime seemed not to ruffle Obama and his campaign. According to the
Journal report, the Obama campaign
brokered the candidate’s promise to end the IRB with John Coli, the
Chicago-area chairman of Joint Council 25, whom Stier identified in his report
as one of the people responsible for shutting down his investigation. (Obama’s
Federal Election Commission records also show a hefty contribution to his
senatorial and presidential races from the same Richard Simon who hatched the
Vegas scheme to undercut local union workers and who, according to Stier, has
mob ties.)

Voters, of course, understand
that in order to get endorsements, politicians often turn a blind eye to
corruption. They employ lobbyists who have worked for nefarious domestic or
foreign clients or whose private activities contradict the politicians’ public
pronouncements. But if Barack Obama wants to run as the candidate of good
government and higher morality, the place to start may not be Washington, but his
home town of Chicago.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New
Republic.

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