New York — The U.S. Attorney’s Office and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters asked a federal judge Wednesday to approve a landmark settlement that will phase out and end the government’s 25-year consent decree to keep mob influence out of the 1.4 million-member union.
After an hour-long hearing during, Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska said she would rule later. She gave no indication of when or how she might rule on the deal that would phase out government oversight over five years.
In January, the U.S. attorney in New York asked a federal judge to end the consent order that’s been in place since March 1989. The union and government entered into the consent decree in 1989 in settlement of a civil racketeering suit brought against the Teamsters by Rudolph Giuliani, who was then the U.S. attorney in New York. The suit alleged that the union had made a “devil’s pact” with organized crime and was dominated by the mob — or La Cosa Nostra, as the FBI referred to the Mafia.
The issue of the mob influence in the union wasn’t addressed during the hearing.
Barbara Harvey, lawyer for the group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, argued Wednesday that the agreement should be changed to include more protections for candidates to challenge union leaders during elections. She said the group supported ending the agreement, but wants added protections including making permanent the reformed 2001 election rules. She opposed allowing the union to appoint election officers and a person to hear appeals of election disputes.
The biggest issue, Harvey pushed, was to keep permanent the ability of a candidate to get on the ballot after receiving as little as 5 percent of convention delegates.
Even that low threshold has made it tough for dissident candidates to get on the ballot, she said. In the 2011 union election, opponents of President Jim Hoffa and his slate of candidates fielded only a candidate for president — and none for any of the other national positions, Harvey said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara M. La Morte said the agreement was “the culmination of literally years of negotiations” that would allow the government to exit oversight of the union’s affairs, but maintain permanent “safeguards to protect the rights of members.” She said the government opposed keeping the 2001 rules in place because “the rules can become stale” and the union should have the flexibility to make changes in the future.
Teamsters lawyer Viet Dinh noted that changes to election rules must be disclosed to all members and then must be approved by the union’s constitutional convention.
La Morte said the government agreed that ensuring candidates get on the ballot was important and said if the union raised the threshold and candidates couldn’t get on the ballot that would be grounds for going back to court. “We have checks,” La Morte said.
Harvey said she was “cautiously optimistic” that Preska would require changes to the final agreement.
Teamsters spokesman Bret Caldwell said Tuesday the union’s commitment to democratic elections is second to none, and he noted it enshrined key rights in the union’s constitution in 2001 under Hoffa.
He said “professional critics seem to forget Jim Hoffa, who was elected by the Teamster membership four times over candidates endorsed by those same professional critics, was the leader who promoted and won one person, one vote in the Teamster constitution.”
The case was brought despite pressure from Congress in 1988. It resulted in the removal of more than 200 Teamsters officers in the first three years of the consent decree, including 50 local union presidents, according to the 2012 book “Breaking the Devil’s Pact: The Battle to Free the Teamsters From the Mob” by James Jacobs and Kerry Cooperman.
Over 20 years, disciplinary charges were brought against more than 600 Teamsters in 21 states; half of those Teamsters were in New York City.
The Teamsters and Justice Department said the union agreed to make permanent the election reforms approved in 2001 and must give notice to the U.S. Attorney’s Office of proposed amendments to the election process. The government can seek a court injunction if it believes changes would make the election process unfair and “deprive members of their reasonable opportunity to nominate candidates, hold office, vote for and otherwise support candidates of their choice.”
The Teamsters agreed to retain reforms for its 2016 and 2021 elections. All future elections must be overseen by an independent supervisor, and the U.S. attorney must approve the person for the next five years.” For the next five years, the union agreed to independent supervision of union elections “and an effective and independent disciplinary mechanism.”
The deal means the court-appointed, three-member Independent Review Board created by the consent deal will be phased out during a five-year period, and the union will establish its own independent disciplinary enforcement mechanism through the appointment of disciplinary officers approved by the Justice Department.
The Teamsters long were suspected of connections to organized crime. Four of the union’s last seven presidents were indicted in office and the Justice Department spent decades investigating mob ties. FBI reports released in 1988 said a Teamsters president, William McCarthy, said in 1984 that he needed permission from a mob boss to advance in the union.