Washington Post

The Teamsters' Next Election

Friday, July 3, 1998

THE WINNER of the last election for Teamsters union president, the incumbent, Ron Carey, was disqualified for having looted the union treasury to finance his campaign. The use of the money was a huge betrayal of trust and a major setback for the 10-year government effort to reform the union; Mr. Carey had been in a sense the government's candidate. A new election is scheduled to be held this fall, again under government supervision. But already a problem has developed: The federal election officer has no money to carry out his task, the estimated cost of which is about $9 million.

Congress refused last year to provide any money. Republicans argued that it was the union's fault that the second election was necessary, and while they agreed that government oversight was needed, they insisted the taxpayer should not have to bear the cost. Democrats didn't much protest; they could ill afford to be seen as protecting a union from whose campaign largess they had lately benefited. A federal judge subsequently ordered the union to foot the oversight bill, but the union appealed, saying it was the government's obligation, and the appeals court agreed that the union couldn't be made to pay. One argument was that the union's members had been in a sense the victims in the case and shouldn't be dunned for the cost of law enforcement.

The appeals court decision put the focus back on Congress, which has begun a new appropriations cycle. A lot of members still don't want to pay, but at this point they seem to us to have no alternative. To balk is to put themselves in an untenable position: They want the union democratized but refuse to fund the principal instrument to bring that result about.

Such critics as Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of a House investigative subcommittee, complain that federal oversight of the last election and of the Teamsters generally over the past 10 years has been flawed. To pay for further oversight without tightening it would be to throw bad money after bad, they suggest. But that understates what the overseers have accomplished. The union has come a long way since the bad old days. Even critics agree that its former ties to organized crime have been severed; it is likewise a far more democratic institution than it was. Mr. Carey's disqualification was a sign of regulatory strength, not weakness. The election-law violations were in 1996; within a year, he had been caught and canned. In how many cases over the years involving, say, congressional campaign finance, has action been that swift and sure?

Mr. Hoekstra is unhappy with some of the interim figures who remain in charge of the union. But it isn't clear who might have the power to remove them, even assuming they ought to be removed -- and how better to make them accountable than by an election? He wants closer scrutiny of the union's expenditures as well, and would tighten financial disclosure rules for unions generally. But a change in disclosure requirements would probably require legislation, and that's not the issue now. The issue is the election funding. "It would be astounding, and a stunning waste of decades of effort spent fighting organized crime and labor racketeering, if the current paralysis over funding resulted in the abandonment of this law enforcement effort and left the rerun election in limbo," the election officer, Michael Cherkasky, told a federal judge last week. He's right.

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