Richard Lopez began his long-awaited tenure as president of International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 743 with optimism – at least it seemed like optimism to his audience. Privately, Lopez knew better. On Tuesday, September 4 he assumed his official duties with a rousing speech, promising to “stand up for working men and women the way the Teamsters has always looked out for me.” But his reign is virtually guaranteed to be brief. Just three days later, federal prosecutors announced a seven-count indictment of Lopez and three other persons who had been on the union payroll for conspiracy to commit election fraud and embezzlement of ballots. The feds are charging that Lopez, along with Cassandra Mosley, Mark Jones and David Rodriguez, devised a “scheme to defraud Local 743” by diverting hundreds of mailed ballots that might have gone to supporters of opposing candidates. Lopez’s attorney, Keith Spielfogel, insists his client is “absolutely innocent.” A joint probe by the Justice Department, the Labor Department and the U.S. Postal Service suggests a different view.
Local 743, located on Chicago’s South Side, is one of the largest Teamster locals in the nation. Representing warehouse, office, medical, service and other workers, the more than 12,000-member union went through a bruising election battle in 2004. Mail-in balloting had been scheduled for September and October. But a logistical problem soon developed. Mail-out packages consisted of an outer envelope containing a ballot to be mailed to each member, an inner envelope for sending ballots, and a return envelope. Sometime in October, two days after tallying had begun, the Local 743 executive board suspended the count, and called for a rerun to be held in November and December. The incumbent “Unity” slate won, but not without the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) eventually filing a civil suit challenging the results. The case dragged on until July 2007, when a federal court ordered a settlement calling for another election early this fall.
Here’s how Richard Lopez and his supporters fit into the scheme of things. Lopez, now 53, a resident of the Chicago suburb of Maywood, had been the union’s recording secretary in 2004. He wasn’t above using his position to maximum advantage. Between August and December of that year, the indictment reads, Lopez, Mosley, Jones and Rodriguez, assisted by other persons, rigged the election by altering computerized addresses of union members presumed unlikely to vote for the Unity slate. They mailed ballots not to these members, but to their own family, friends and associates. Lopez and company subsequently collected the fraudulent ballots, cast in favor of Unity candidates. The slate’s respective candidates for president and secretary-treasurer, by no coincidence, were Robert Walston and Richard Lopez. And by no coincidence, they won their races.
Lopez may be declaring his innocence, but Walston’s opponent, Richard Berg, is convinced the fix was in. “The election was stolen from me and all the members of Local 743,” he said. Berg had sparked the lawsuit by complaining to DOL, which eventually concluded that the ballots had been sent deliberately to wrong addresses. In the July settlement, union officials admitted a controller had shredded the eligibility list. Walston, though not mentioned in the government’s complaint, soon resigned, paving the way for Lopez’s ascent to the presidency. Lopez’s days as president are numbered, especially as Berg is running for president again. As a Chicago tradition, vote-stealing may have seen its heyday, but at Teamsters Local 743 it lives on. (U.S. Department of Justice, 9/7/07; Chicago Sun-Times, 9/8/07).