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.