Ron Carey looked like a tired stereotype: the disgraced labor boss on the witness stand, with dark bags beneath his eyes, denying accusations of wrongdoing in a made-in-Queens accent. In a federal courtroom in Washington, Charles Carberry, a stout, balding, rough-along-the-edges former prosecutor who used to lock up Wall Street and mob crooks in New York, was hurling one brutal question after another at the beleaguered Teamsters president. Why didn’t you monitor the financial practices of your campaign? Why did you make misstatements to investigators about the flow of money between various Teamsters funds? Why didn’t you demand more information about the funny-money business at the union once it became public? Why did you attend a retirement party for a Teamster accused of swindling a local? With each question, Carey’s shoulders drooped further; his combativeness faded. In various ways, Carberry, chief investigator for the Independent Review Board (the I.R.B. investigates and adjudicates cases of internal Teamsters corruption), was asking over and over how Carey could not have known about the scheme in which his campaign aides illegally funneled nearly a million dollars in union funds to outside groups in return for donations to Carey’s re-election campaign. Carberry’s inquisition had a powerful implicit message: If you really didn’t know, how can you claim to be competent enough to manage the nation’s largest union?
Months before these three days of hearings in January, Carey’s re-election victory over Jimmy Hoffa, the son of the notorious corrupt labor chieftain, had been overturned by a court-appointed elections officer. Subsequently, Carey was disqualified from running again. He voluntarily took a leave of office–but did not fully step aside so that reformers in the union could coalesce (and recover) behind another candidate. The U.S. Attorney in New York was still investigating the scandal, and perhaps him. And now in this proceeding, the I.R.B. was weighing charges against Carey. The labor leader was near bottom, fighting not to be kicked out of the union he joined in 1955 as a teenager. But the defiance that first marked his testimony dissipated under Carberry’s assault, and after the grilling, Reid Weingarten, Carey’s high-profile attorney, didn’t bother to ask further questions. The members of the review panel–former Federal Judge Frederick Lacey, labor attorney Grant Crandall and ex-C.I.A. director William Webster–looked downcast. In the courtroom audience, Hoffa supporters chuckled with glee. On Carberry’s face was a thin smile. Carey’s last-ditch attempt to save his reputation, to preserve his union standing, was teetering.
The prosecution–and persecution–of Ron Carey has been an ugly affair. This is not to say that an innocent man has been framed. But Carey has been dealt the equivalent of a career death sentence in procedures short on due process and on the basis of underwhelming evidence that he participated in the wrongdoing. Moreover, the Teamsters essentially have been stripped of their president in a less-than-democratic fashion (though not in an extraordinary manner, for the union operates under numerous rules and oversight mechanisms that have emerged from a consent decree it signed with the Justice Department in 1989). Perhaps Carey yielded to the temptations of power. But a close reading of the record shows that this remains an open question. Carey may well have been a lousy manager and allowed underlings the opportunity to misappropriate funds. But that is not why he was banned from the election. He was banished for having been a knowing party to the crimes committed; and that is a debatable conclusion. When the stakes are so high–whoever controls the Teamsters influences the entire labor movement and, to an extent, the national political landscape–it is reasonable to expect that the system should operate with openness, deference to due process and careful interpretation of facts. That has not happened.
Ron Carey was elected president of the Teamsters in 1991. Under him, scores of dirty locals were reformed (often with the I.R.B. casting out the thugs), and the union flexed its political muscle in progressive fashion and beefed up its organizing power, which was bolstered by the successful strike against U.P.S. last summer. But the union, coping with the harsh realities of deregulation, remained a brotherhood deeply divided, with many members yearning for the good old strongarming days of Jimmy Hoffa. In 1996 Carey faced a strong challenge to his re-election from son-of-Hoffa. Both sides desperately needed money. Hoffa’s campaign banked $1.8 million–half its total budget–in what it claimed to be 20,000 donations from small, unidentified donors. (The Hoffa campaign is now under investigation for this fundraising, and it is possible the inquiry will threaten Hoffa’s participation in the next election as well.) In the white heat of the 1996 campaign, Carey’s campaign manager, Jere Nash, conspired with political consultants Martin Davis and Michael Ansara to arrange illegal contribution swaps and to raise money in ways that violated the law and union rules. At the center of this scheming was a money carousel: In the course of a week in October 1996, the Teamsters, drawing on general treasury funds, gave $735,000 to Citizen Action, Project Vote and the National Council of Senior Citizens, progressive advocacy groups mobilizing voters against the Republican-controlled Congress. There was nothing improper about the union making such donations; Carey had pledged publicly to use union resources to counter Congressional Republicans. But in return for the contributions, wealthy individuals who might otherwise have donated to these advocacy groups sent $227,500 to Carey’s re-election campaign. Plainly put, union funds were converted into Carey campaign funds.