The Teamsters And The Mob: It May Really Be Over

The roster reads like a Who's Who of bad fellas. Since the federal government brought an unprecedented racketeering suit against the Teamsters in 1989, dozens of officials at one of the largest, most mob-connected unions in the nation have been muscled out or decided to quit. By yearend, every top officer alleged by law-enforcement officials to have mob ties is likely to be gone. Court-appointed overseers have run out dozens more local leaders as well. It's just one sign that the Teamsters, long considered rotten at the top, is on the verge of being cleaned up.

Government officials caution that it's still hard in some cases to keep the mob at bay (box). But Mafia bosses no longer can arrange quiet pension-fund loans or self-serving labor contracts with Teamsters brass. The change will be dramatized on June 24 when the union holds a convention in Orlando to nominate candidates for president--and for the union's 16-member executive board--in elections to be held in December. For decades, the board hand-picked a president, who was anointed at the convention. This year, the delegates will choose at least two candidates--most likely including Ron Carey, a New York-based reformer, and R. V. Durham, the union's chief negotiator, who hasn't been linked to the mob. Then next winter, all 1.6 million Teamsters members can cast secret ballots.

Even if Carey's anticorruption campaign doesn't bring him victory, it will have a cathartic effect: Already, other candidates speak openly about cleaning up the union--a verboten topic before. "I've seen quite a few of these Teamsters elections," says Jim E. Moody, chief of the organized crime section at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, "and this is the first one where I don't know who's going to win."

The old guard didn't lie down easily. Had the union lost the racketeering suit, it might have been put in trusteeship. To avoid that, President William J. McCarthy signed a government deal providing for direct elections and letting in two court-appointed overseers to root out corruption. Then, he hired platoons of lawyers--$12 million worth, so far--to litigate the deal at each step. Teamsters leaders also cooked up an effort to block rank-and-file elections. The plan: simply to ask convention delegates to approve the old way.

CLEAN SWEEP. But the maneuvering hasn't worked. Charles M. Carberry, the overseer in charge of investigating officials suspected of crimes or mob connections, stayed in close touch with the FBI. To date, he has charged more than 100 Teamsters, 41 of whom now are out of the union. Others have quit, retired, or have said they plan to do so soon. Most impressive is the sweep of the governing executive board. If all the current charges stick--and the courts have upheld Carberry on all those appealed so far--no one with alleged mob ties willbe left on the board.

The overseers are winning on the election front, too. Federal Judge David N. Edelstein, who monitors the settlement from New York, ruled that the convention couldn't veto the reforms already agreed to, although the union has appealed his decision. Edelstein even plans to set up shop in the Orlando courthouse, so he can be on hand to rule on disputes. Another overseer, Michael H. Holland, has constructed--and enforced--a detailed set of rules governing elections of convention delegates. Previously, local union officers often became delegates automatically.

The double whammy of Carberry's charges and Holland's rules has transformed the Teamsters' autocratic political hierarchy. As members saw that the elections wouldn't be a sham, political contests broke out everywhere. Dozens of candidates announced bids for board seats, including six for the presidency. The board split openly over its own candidate after McCarthy lost out in a power struggle. A slim majority backed Durham, 59. A faction led by Joseph Trerotola, the powerful head of the union's Eastern region, put up Walter Shea, a longtime assistant to several Teamsters presidents. But Carberry then accused Trerotola of tolerating mobsters in his region. Trerotola is fighting the charge.

These divisions give a real shot to Carey, president of Local 804 on Long Island, N. Y. He started with handicaps: He has raised only $250,000 of the $2 million he thought necessary to mount a nationwide campaign among the union's 620 locals. And he was endorsed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a doubled-edged sword. TDU, a dissident group with fewer than 10,000 members, gave Carey a national base. But it is hated by top Teamsters for its relentless attacks against them over the years.

To nearly everyone's surprise, Carey, 55, is hanging in. He claims already to have garnered 250 of the 1,900 convention delegates elected from the locals--far more than the 98 needed to get on the ballot. Four TDU delegates pledged to Carey even won election in President McCarthy's hometown local in Boston. "The mob's power has been broken in the union," says Carey. "They can't play a role anymore, no matter who wins."

Even more telling is how honesty and accountability have become the new standard. This has even squeezed out leaders not linked to the Mafia. One is Arnie Weinmeister, a long-time vice-president who dropped off Durham's slate after Carey attacked his $650,000-a-year salary. This is a dramatic change for the Teamsters, where more than 150 officers pull in $100,000-plus a year, usually by holding multiple union jobs, as does Weinmeister, who won't comment. Durham has proposed salary restrictions to end complaints "that some officers only care about making a half a million dollars."

Higher ethical standards also have helped drive out Weldon L. Mathis, the union's secretary-treasurer. He hasn't been tainted by allegations of mob ties, but the Labor Dept. did find election fraud in his Atlanta local. Mathis, 65, won't comment. But insiders say he felt the heat from Carey's attacks and decided to retire. Says one Durham team member: "Mathis didn't want to go through a campaign being called scum by Carey."

PETTY CROOKS? As the cleanup continues, organized labor sees one downside. Many unionists objected to the federal lawsuit, which involved the first use of the Racketeer-Influenced & Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) against an entire union, since the act lets prosecutors use civil standards of proof instead of stricter criminal ones. They feared that a precedent set at the Teamsters would let the government use RICO to run roughshod over any union.

Carberry has brought home these worries by charging Teamsters that have no alleged mob links. In some cases, officials who allegedly cribbed on expense accounts have been accused of embezzlement and kicked out of the union. That's the allegation against Michael J. Riley, a vice-president from Los Angeles with no history of mob ties. Other unionists agree that Riley and others were wrong if they cheated. But Laurence S. Gold, the AFL-CIO's general counsel, argues that the point of the historic lawsuit was to clear out mobsters, not chase petty crooks. "You could indict half the people in the Justice Dept. on the standards they're using," says Gold.

Still, the progress against Mafia influence in the union is impressive. And that's no doubt a relief to the vast majority of honest, rank-and-file Teamsters.