MANHATTAN (CN) – In a recent lawsuit blasting the “monarchy” of Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr., lead plaintiff Fred Gegare did not mention that he is running against Hoffa, who is seeking a fourth term this fall.
Gegare’s campaign website directs visitors to his June 13 federal complaint, which alleges that Hoffa “ruthlessly orchestrates” federal mob investigations against his political opponents.
The allegation is more eyebrow-raising, as Hoffa has publicly denounced such investigations since he took office in 1999.
A week after Gegare and 50 co-plaintiffs sued Hoffa, a Teamster attorney brushed off the lawsuit as “frivolous,” and stopped just short of calling it politically motivated.
Whatever its merits, the lawsuit by Gegare and 50 Teamster co-plaintiffs has shined a spotlight on the allegations that have dogged the Hoffa family for generations.
Hoffa’s father helped elevate the Teamsters to international prominence before mysteriously disappearing at a restaurant near Detroit in 1975.
Plagued with corruption allegations throughout his life, the elder Hoffa reportedly expected to meet two Mafia soldiers before he went missing. He was declared legally dead several years later. His body has never been found.
When the younger Hoffa first became president decades later, he launched an anti-corruption program to try to persuade the federal government to let the union police itself, without oversight.
Although that effort failed in his first term, Hoffa won two more elections, and recently announced that he would seek a fourth term.
Gegare’s lawsuit takes Hoffa to task for failing to end the government’s consent decree, which forces the Teamsters to fund an Independent Review Board (IRB) to investigate the union for corruption.
Edwin Stier, who resigned from Hoffa’s anti-corruption program Project RISE in 2004, told Courthouse News in an interview that the government has no reason to dissolve the consent decree.
“As we began to step on big toes in the union, Hoffa backed off,” Stier said.
Hoffa intended for Project RISE to replace the consent decree, by proving to the government that the Teamsters did not need federal oversight.
Signaling his seriousness, Hoffa tapped Stier, a former federal prosecutor, to head the program, and former FBI agent Jim Kossler as his deputy.
“The General Executive Board in 1999 took on the responsibility to police the union, and in fact, we did,” Stier said. He said his firm “brought charges against a number of high-ranking union officials and cleaned up a number of corrupt situations. And had the union continued to do that, it might have satisfied the federal government that and then could be brought to end the consent decree.”
In his resignation letter in 2004, Stier wrote that Hoffa had backed off from high-profile prosecutions “in the face of pressure from a few self-interested individuals,” making the positions of Project RISE’s investigators “untenable.”
“When Jim Kossler and I first appeared before the General Executive Board in July 1999 to present an anti-corruption plan intended to make the Teamsters Union capable of protecting its members from organized crime and systemic corruption, I delivered a warning,” Stier wrote in an open letter. “I told you that before retaining us, you needed to consider whether you would be willing to hold friends and political allies accountable to the standards of conduct by which all Teamsters are bound.”
In the interview, Stier said that Hoffa’s handling of union corruption has not improved since 2004.
“From that point on, there didn’t seem to be any effort made for the union to police itself,” Stier said. “I don’t know of any cases that the union has initiated on its own, certainly not involving anyone of any significance in the union.”
In May, the Independent Review Board barred Local 1901 member Michael Prelli from the Teamsters for his alleged association with the Mafia, court records show.
In its decision, the IRB also alleged mob ties in Local 1901, which the board said helped deliver most of New York City’s newspapers, including The New York Times, The New York Post, The Daily News, The Wall Street Journal and El Diario.
In April 2010, Local 1901 voluntarily dissociated itself from the Teamsters after being investigated by the IRB, the decision stated.
Stier said in the interview that he was not aware of this case, but pointed to another IRB investigation a year earlier, involving Boston’s Local 82.
On Sept. 13, 2010, the board claimed that Hoffa’s national Trade Show and Convention Director John Perry had awarded corrupt contracts to friends and family in the union, court documents show.
Hoffa always has maintained he is serious about having the Teamsters reduce corruption by itself, and his attorney repeated that position in a statement taking a veiled swipe at Gegare.
“The lead plaintiff well knows that the union has engaged in numerous efforts to bring an end to the consent decree, efforts that are ongoing,” said Brad Raymond, Teamsters general counsel.
But Stier said that Hoffa’s stated opposition to the consent decree has been disingenuous.
“In my view, it’s been convenient for him to have the IRB because that relieves him of any responsibility in his mind to deal with corruption in the union,” Stier said.
While declining to comment on the prospects of Gegare’s lawsuit and campaign for Hoffa’s office, Stier said he believes the consent decree is unlikely to resonate as an issue for rank-and-file Teamsters.
“I would say that from the behavior of Jim Hoffa over the last seven years, I’d think that it’s a pretty good barometer to tell you that it has not been a political issue,” Stier said.
“If there were real concerns by the membership about ‘getting rid of the government,’ as they characterized it, Hoffa would have made a serious effort to do it, and he hasn’t.”
Alexandra “Sandy” Pope, also running against Hoffa – the first woman to run for Teamsters president – has avoided entering this political fray. Her campaign did not return an email requesting comment on the lawsuit.
Pope has been endorsed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a nonprofit whose “No Mob Control, No Government Control, Right to Vote” platform helped shape the consent decree.
In commenting on Gegare’s lawsuit, Teamsters General Counsel Raymond wrote to Courthouse News, diplomatically: “While we cannot speculate about Mr. Gegare’s motives, we would certainly hope the filing and timing of his lawsuit is unconnected with his political aspirations. The future of the union after the consent decree ends is far too important for it to become a matter for internal union politics.”
Stier said the government probably will not let internal Teamster politics stand in the way of its investigation.
“If the consent decree ever ends, it’s going to be based on some sort of a system of self-policing that satisfies the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of New York,” Stier said. “So there are necessarily going to be elements of an enforcement system that are going to be difficult for the union to swallow. That is, it will have to be independent of politics in the union, if the government is going to accept it.”