Winning a third term in office was the easy part for James P. Hoffa, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Few observers gave his perennial challenger, Tom Leedham, much of a chance. Aside from the advantages of incumbency and last-name recognition, Hoffa had outspent Leedham $3 million to $300,000, according to campaign forms filed with a federal election supervisor. But keeping corruption out of his union will be the hard part. Edwin Stier, the lawyer who headed the union’s internal reform operation during 1999-2004 believes that as long as Hoffa remains in control, the IBT will be anything but clean. “By the time I left, Hoffa and his people had abandoned its efforts to deal with corruption within their union,” Stier told Union Corruption Update in an exclusive interview. “There have been no Teamster-initiated investigations of wrongdoing since then.” Stier is a partner in the law firm Stier Anderson, LLC, based in Skillman, N.J., with a Washington, D.C. office.
Hoffa took over the Teamster reins in the spring of 1999, after defeating Portland, Ore. chieftain Leedham in a special election the previous year. He defeated Leedham again in a regular election in 2001, and once more this past fall, each time winning by a nearly 2-to-1 majority. Hoffa hand-picked Stier, an ex-federal prosecutor who spent at least a decade cleaning up the notoriously mobbed-up Teamsters Local 560 in New Jersey, to set the international union’s house in order. The Teamsters had been under federal receivership since 1989, when the union agreed to an out-of-court civil RICO settlement with the Justice Department rather than fight overwhelming evidence of its longtime collusion with organized crime. Hoffa was driven to end federal supervision. Stier assembled a staff to document corruption and develop a course of action to eliminate it. The proposed reform plan, going by the name Project RISE (Reform, Integrity, Strength, Ethics), hopefully would put the union on the road to full independence.
In the wake of the 1989 settlement, the Justice Department set up an enforcement panel known as the Independent Review Board (IRB). Project RISE worked closely with the IRB to initiate probes and secure convictions. Hoffa’s legacy was not fighting corruption, though he did for a variety of reasons place locals under trusteeship. Though he often criticized his predecessor, Ron Carey (himself removed from the union for tacit approval of a money-laundering scheme related to his 1996 re-election campaign), Hoffa’s main interest appeared to be consolidating power. Stier over time became disenchanted. Project RISE released a massive report in 2002 warning that certain locals still were controlled by organized crime. He cited the cases of an old Hoffa ally, Mike Bane, head of Local 614 in Pontiac, Mich., and Hoffa’s chief of staff, Carlow Scalf, whom he accused of working with Chicago gangsters to sabotage an investigation of locals in that city. Scalf two years ago pleaded guilty to embezzling nearly $70,000, and was suspended from the union for 60 days.
Stier’s disenchantment continued to grow. Things came to a head in late April 2004, when he and his entire 20-person staff of investigators and lawyers resigned in protest. Hoffa subsequently hired another ex-federal prosecutor, Ed McDonald, ostensibly to continue the cleanup. But the underlying purpose, insists Stier, was to discredit Project RISE’s work. “Neither McDonald nor his people talked to me regarding any aspect of my investigations,” Stier remarked. “He was there solely to lend credibility to Hoffa’s side of the story. Since the spring of 2004 there have been no union-initiated investigations.”
Meanwhile, Tom Leedham and his allies at a union dissident group, Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), had made corruption a key issue during his most recent run for international president. Unfortunately, they never could wean away Hoffa loyalists or even generate excitement; only 21 percent of the rank-and-file membership even bothered to mail in their ballots. TDU promises to carry on the good fight. “The election is over,” noted the group on its website (www.tdu.org). “Hoffa needs to stop acting like a politician and start acting like a leader who can unite working Teamsters to win.” Unfortunately for TDU, if Hoffa runs for re-election in 2011 and his opponent once again is Leedham, he’s not likely to heed such words. (Newark Star-Ledger, 5/10/04; Teamsters for a Democratic Union; other sources).