Wall Street Journal reporters Brody Mullins and Kris Maher reported in early May how Barack Obama won the Teamsters' endorsement for president. In a meeting earlier this year, he privately "told the union that he supported ending the strict federal oversight imposed to root out corruption."
The story was based in part on statements by Teamsters official John Coli and Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor. After the story was published, Obama told ABC's "Good Morning America" that he only said that he would look more closely at the issue.
Obama holds himself out as a new kind of politician who refuses to play the old games. The Wall Street Journal story should have blown Obama's pretense up several times over, but it has generated next to no coverage or follow-up.
The Teamsters union has had a long and storied relationship with the Mafia. To take just one vivid example, consider the case of Anthony Senter, the Mafia hit man who arranged a deal with a Teamsters local for a pension after he was convicted of being a member of a mob hit squad in New York City that committed 25 murders and dismembered most of the victims. Senter's attempt to secure a pension from his friends at the Teamsters was disrupted in 1994 by the Independent Review Board.
The IRB is the body created by a 1989 consent decree to monitor the Teamsters for corruption. Since 1999 the Teamsters has sought to have the consent decree dissolved. The Department of Justice has not thought that such a good idea. The Teamsters would like new leadership at the Department of Justice with a better attitude.
The Teamsters agreed to the decree with the government. The decree was signed by Judge David Edelstein of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. The consent decree resolved the government's prosecution of the Teamsters for racketeering.
The decree is enforced by a permanent injunction. The injunction orders the Teamsters to refrain from racketeering activity (as defined under federal law) and from knowingly associating with the Mafia. The consent decree also provided for the creation of the three-member IRB in 1992. The jurisdiction of the IRB is limited to the prevention of corruption, including bribery, embezzlement, extortion, loan sharking, and other serious violations of federal law, or control and influence of the Teamsters by the Mafia.
According to the Journal, Obama advised the Teamsters prior to its endorsement of him that he supported dissolving the permanent injunction to which the Teamsters agreed in 1989 and under which it has been operating ever since. Dissolution of the consent decree would require judicial blessing, but if the government were to seek dissolution of the decree, it would be highly likely to secure it.
In 2002, the left-wing Nation magazine frankly condemned Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa's goal of eliminating federal oversight of the Teamsers as "a bad idea." It still is. Are the corruption and exploitation of the Teamsters no longer a serious threat? Someone really should ask Barack Obama why not.
The Nation article noted that in May 2002 the IRB permanently barred from the union two of Hoffa's closest associates -- William Hogan Jr., president of Chicago's Joint Council 25, and Dane Passo, Hoffa's former Midwest campaign manager and special assistant. Hogan and Passo were disciplined for trying over an extended period of time to force the Las Vegas local to permit a mob-linked labor broker (of which Hogan's brother was vice president) to provide low-wage, nonunion workers for convention setup work, thus threatening to undermine the Teamsters contract and displace union members.
Following Mullins and Maher's Wall Street Journal story, John Judis revisited the 2002 incident that showed the continuing threat that corruption poses to the Teamsters, and therefore the continuing need for the IRB. In the New Republic Judis raised two issues regarding Obama's pledge to the Teamsters. First, Judis noted the procedural irregularity in Obama's commitment: "In these kind of touchy matters, presidents usually defer to the judgment of their attorney generals. By coming close to promising a shutdown, Obama was putting politics above judicial procedure--which is just the kind of 'Washington' behavior that he likes to criticize his opponents for doing."
Judis also criticized the substance of Obama's commitment: "If there is continuing mob influence in the Teamsters, it is probably centered in the Chicago area. And in the last decade, the Teamsters in Chicago have shown little enthusiasm for rooting out corruption in their ranks. As a veteran Chicago politician surrounded by a veteran Chicago campaign staff, Obama had to have known this--and that makes his warm words to the Teamsters all the more disturbing."
In a subsequent exchange with Hogan, Judis concluded: "Either [Obama] is guilty of willful ignorance about a powerful segment of the Chicago political scene, or he is, for better or worse, another example of that well known species, politicus hypocriticus."
Some Democrats recently sought the impeachment of an attorney general for politicizing justice by the firing of eight United States Attorneys. Many Democrats joined in driving the attorney general from office on the charge. The charge was of dubious merit against Alberto Gonzales. Democrats now put forward a presidential candidate who is engaged in something that looks very much like the genuine article, with the appearance of corruption thrown in for good measure.
Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the blog Power Line.