New York Times

Documents Cast New Light on Ickes's Tie to Teamsters


October 7, 1998

WASHINGTON -- A House panel investigating the Teamsters union disclosed internal White House documents Tuesday that shed a fuller and harsher light on an effort by Harold Ickes, former White House deputy chief of staff, to resolve an agricultural labor dispute in California in behalf of the union.

The new documents are significant because they have surfaced at a time when Ickes' truthfulness about his activities with the teamsters is the subject of a 90-day Justice Department inquiry that could lead to the appointment of an independent prosecutor. Attorney General Janet Reno has until December to decide whether to go forward with an outside inquiry.

Reno is examining Ickes' statements last year to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which first investigated the matter in its campaign finance investigation. When Ickes was asked by Senate investigators what the Clinton administration did regarding the strike at the Diamond Walnut Growers cooperative, he replied, "Nothing that I know of."

But on Tuesday the House subcommittee on oversight and investigations released a March 6, 1995, memorandum by Ickes to Mickey Kantor, who was the U.S. trade representative at the time. It said Ickes had met with a group of Teamsters officials and wanted to meet with Kantor to persuade him to intervene in behalf of striking Teamsters.

"Given the situation I would like to meet with you at your very earliest possible convenience to discuss this situation," Ickes wrote to Kantor.

Additional documents released Tuesday showed that Ickes did meet with Kantor on March 24, 1995, and followed up the meeting with a thank-you letter on March 27, 1995. Then, on April 4, 1995, Kantor telephoned William Cuff, the president of Diamond Walnut Growers.

Ickes' efforts on behalf of the Teamsters occurred against the backdrop of White House efforts to rejuvenate a relationship that had cooled after the union supported Clinton and other Democratic candidates in the 1992 campaign. The Senate inquiry found that in the early months of 1995, Ickes considered several specific proposals to enlist the Teamsters' support.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said his committee would continue to investigate the Teamsters, including the union's activities with the Democratic National Committee and its dealings with Charles Ruff, the White House counsel who was hired by the union when he was a lawyer in private practice in 1993.

On Tuesday, Robert Bennett, Ickes' lawyer, dismissed the significance of the documents unearthed by the committee. Bennett said Ickes did not interpret his meeting with Teamsters officials, his memorandum to Kantor or even Kantor's telephone call to Diamond Walnut as "doing anything for the union" because Clinton officials did not take concrete action to pressure the company into settling the strike.

At a subcommittee hearing Tuesday, Kantor testified that his call to Cuff was nothing more than a brief status inquiry. Kantor said he asked "for an update and what are the prospects for settlement." Kantor added, "I considered the call benign, part of my job and of no great consequence."

But Cuff testified Tuesday that he never before received a phone call from such a high-ranking official. He said the inquiry unsettled him enough to report the call officially to his company's board.

"There was absolutely no explicit threat," Cuff said. "The only thing I would say is that when you get a call from a senior official of the administration you have to be concerned."

He added, "I figured it was part of the ongoing significant effort by the union to try to bring us to our knees."

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

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