Washington Post

Kantor Testifies In Probe of Teamsters

By Frank Swoboda

Washington Post Staff Writer

October 7, 1998

Former U.S. trade representative Mickey Kantor told Congress yesterday that former White House aide Harold M. Ickes asked him to call a company president facing a lengthy Teamsters strike after the union began pressuring the Clinton administration to help settle the dispute.

But Kantor, who also later served as commerce secretary, told a House panel investigating the Teamsters that the administration did not provide any help for the union in its battle with Diamond Walnut Growers in California. "No one ever tried to persuade me to do anything negative to Diamond Walnut and we didn't," Kantor told the hearing.

Following Kantor's testimony, former Diamond Walnut president William Cuff agreed with much of Kantor's description of the call. He testified that it was "a very pleasant conversation" and said there was "absolutely no threat."

The timing and the nature of the call -- and Ickes's involvement -- is of interest to congressional investigators because Attorney General Janet Reno last month ordered a preliminary investigation into allegations that Ickes lied to a Senate committee about political favors he performed to help win the support of the Teamsters in the 1996 elections. Reno has until the end of November to decide whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Ickes, a former White House deputy chief of staff who was the chief liaison to the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Asked during a Sept. 22, 1997, Senate deposition what the administration did regarding the Diamond Walnut strike, Ickes responded, "Nothing that I know of."

Amy Sabrin, Ickes's lawyer, said yesterday she did not want to comment on the hearing. But last month, when the inquiry began, Ickes's lawyers said that he testified truthfully before Congress.

Congressional Republicans have been trying for more than a year to prove that the White House set out in early 1995 to court the Teamsters to assure the union's financial support in the '96 presidential election.

"What we are here to do is determine whether the White House pressured a company to settle a labor dispute in an attempt to lure the Teamsters back into the Democratic fold," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House education and work force subcommittee. "We're trying to see if the Teamsters used members' dues money from the union's political action committee to effectively purchase negotiating power from the White House."

In an effort to build its case against Ickes, the subcommittee yesterday produced a number of memos to show how Ickes tried to get Kantor to call Cuff about the possibility of settling a strike by more than 500 cannery workers that began in 1990 and continues today. The workers, mostly Hispanic women, have been replaced by the company.

In the first memo, written March 6, 1995, Ickes asked to set up an appointment with Kantor to discuss the Diamond Walnut strike, noting that he had met with several Teamsters officials about it. A log of Kantor's appointments shows he scheduled a meeting with Ickes 18 days later.

Kantor told the committee yesterday that in the meeting Ickes asked him to check on the status of the strike and the prospects for a settlement. He said he agreed to make the call to Cuff. Kantor added that campaign contributions were never discussed.

Three days later, on March 27, Ickes sent a follow-up memo to Kantor thanking him for the meeting and said, "I trust you will follow up."

Kantor telephoned Walnut Growers in early April, a call he described yesterday as "benign." He said he talked to Cuff for three to five minutes and that it was his only contact with the company executive until the two met yesterday at the hearing.

Cuff testified the conversation may have lasted a few minutes longer than Kantor recalled but he basically agreed with Kantor's description of the conversation. "He said he was calling relating to the strike," Cuff said, "and was there anything he could do to help settle it."

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