Judge approves end to U.S. decree overseeing Teamsters

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A federal judge late Tuesday approved a landmark settlement that will phase out and end the government’s oversight and 25-year consent decree to keep mob influence out of the 1.4 million-member union.

Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska said in a four-page ruling that a “thorough review of the final agreement and order reveals that the settlement must be approved.” She added that “there is no doubt that the decree is procedurally proper, that its terms are clear, that it reflects a resolution of the claims at issue, and that it is untainted by collusion or corruption.”

In January, the U.S. attorney in New York asked Preska to end the consent order that’s been in place since March 1989. The consent decree is replaced by a final order, in which the government’s continued role in the internal affairs of the Teamsters Union will be phased out over a five-year period that will end in February 2020.

The approval is a big win for Teamsters President Jim Hoffa, who has spent years working to end the government’s oversight.

“This is an historic agreement that returns our great union to our 1.4 million Teamster members,” said Hoffa, a Michigan native, in a statement Tuesday. “Our union is committed to the democratic process, and we can proudly declare that corrupt elements have been driven from the Teamsters and that government oversight can come to an end.”

The union and government entered into the consent decree 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.

Barbara Harvey, a Detroit lawyer for the group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, argued earlier this month the agreement should be changed to include more protections for candidates to challenge union leaders.

But Preska said in her ruling the policy decisions objected to by Harvey were the product of “good faith bargaining” and those decisions are outside of the court’s review. Courts generally give the government and groups wide leeway in reaching deals to end government oversight.

Harvey 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.

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 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 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.

Hoffa’s father, Jimmy Hoffa, disappeared in July 1975, last seen at the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Oakland County. He was legally declared dead in 1982.

The FBI said in a 1975 memo it believed Hoffa’s disappearance “is directly connected with his attempts to regain power within the Teamsters union, which would possibly have an effect on the (La Cosa Nostra) control and manipulation of the Teamster Pension Fund.”