The Local

by John B. Judis | May 19, 2008

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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