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