Citizen Action Spent $7 Million On Political Ads In The 1996 Campaign.

When Do­Gooders Get Into Bad Trouble

The Teamster Connection At Citizen Action


In the summer of 1995, Citizen Action rented steamrollers for one of the brash demonstrations on behalf of the poor and elderly that had been its trademark through 17 years of consumer activism.

The group parked the machines in the districts of House members who, Citizen Action charged, were trying to drive Medicare cuts through Congress without scrutiny or debate.

Citizen Action counted it as a victory when the plan failed to gain a veto-proof majority in a Congress flooded with constituent calls and letters generated by the caper.

Now, Citizen Action is less happy with the headlines it has made.

Last month, federal prosecutors claimed that the small nonprofit had operated as a funnel for $215,000 that flowed illegally from the Teamsters union back into the reelection effort of its president, Ron Carey (see chart, Page 34).

Three Carey aides already have pleaded guilty and face jail time, more indictments could be ahead.

And because, in the process, Teamster money also went toward a $ 7 million Citizen Action campaign that produced television and radio ads critical of Republican politicians, the group has also caught the attention of Sen. Fred Thompson's fund-raising investigation, which will be looking into the Teamsters this week.

Change and division.

To outsiders, Citizen Action's alleged transformation from nonprofit do­gooder to jaded Democratic deal maker seems inexplicable, but the change is less mysterious to some Citizen Action regulars who have grown dissatisfied with the group's direction.

Since last December, the Ohio and Indiana groups have split from the national organization and the Pennsylvania organization disbanded.

Former Massachusetts director Edward Kelly, who resigned earlier this year, charges group leaders have become "apologists for Democratic Party politics."

Some insiders perceived a change in Citizen Action with President Clinton's election, which gave the group a sympathetic White House for the first time in its history.

Citizen Action's executive director, Ira Arlook, moved from his longtime Ohio office to Washington, D.C., where his wife, Karen Nussbaum, had been tapped to head the Clinton Labor Department's office for women's issues.

Some believe this coziness led to Citizen Action's backing much of the Clinton administration's ill­fated health care proposal in 1993, overruling members who favored a sweeping, single-payer health system. "[The national office] barked it like an order," recalls Chris Williams, director of the Citizen Action Coalition of Indiana.

Attack ads.

Some members' estrangement from the leadership increased when the group embarked upon its Campaign for a Responsible Congress in 1995.

Ohio Citizen Action spokesman Paul Ryder says the state group never had a chance to preview the television commercials Citizen Action aired attacking Ohio Republican Rep. Frank Cremeans.

In Massachusetts, Kelly noted that the ad campaign "parroted the same issues" as the Democratic National Committee-no surprise, given that Citizen Action was using many of the same consultants as the DNC and that Citizen Action's lawyer also served as chief counsel to the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign.

Citizen Action entered into internal Teamster politics in part through coincidence. One of union President Ron Carey's campaign managers, telemarketer Michael Ansara, had been a cofounder of Citizen Action in 1979 and was trusted by the group.

In October 1996, Ansara met in California with a Citizen Action fund-raiser to seek help in re-electing Carey.

Federal officers charge that the fund­raiser, knowing that Citizen Action needed money for its costly Campaign for a Responsible Congress, agreed to solicit contributions for the Carey campaign in exchange for bigger donations by the Teamsters to Citizen Action.

Attorneys for Arlook, the group's director, say Citizen Action's top officials never knowingly participated in efforts to funnel funds into the Carey re-election effort.

Group officials are cooperating with prosecutors but cannot comment further on the allegations.

Hetty Rosenstein, who chairs the Citizen Action board, says the group is "in our greatest crisis," but she is confident "we are still able to provide vision and a direction for progressive people."

For now, Citizen Action is forging ahead with its latest big issue: fighting for legal reforms to curb the corrupting influence of money in politics.

With Gary Cohen

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All original work Copyright Laborers.org 1998. All rights reserved.