BY ROBERT NOVAK-Sun-Times
January 13, 2000
Richard Trumka traveled from Washington to Des Moines last week
to emerge from seclusion. A press release from the labor organization's
Washington headquarters trumpeted Trumka's leading role at a Saturday
rally for Al Gore, where he exhorted Iowa union members to back
the vice president at Democratic caucuses Jan. 24. Earlier that
afternoon, he was on national television, seated prominently at
Gore's debate with Bill Bradley.
Not that much had been seen
of Trumka, big labor's second-in command, since he took the Fifth
Amendment about his role in the tainted 1996 Teamsters election.
He was even a no-show at Seattle's World Trade Summit last month,
where union colleagues berated globalism. So, why should he suddenly
roar out of the closet?
Perhaps Trumka is guessing
or has been assured that he will not be implicated in federal
prosecution of the Teamsters AFL-CIO-Democratic scandal that has
yielded one criminal conviction. But Trumka's labor critics have
a different theory: He appeared boldly in Des Moines because he
wants to show he is too big to fail. Attorney General Janet Reno's
politicized Justice Department might well hesitate before prosecuting
a close associate of the Democratic Party's putative new leader.
The case involves $885,000
distributed by the Teamsters to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign
in exchange for contributions to Ron Carey's re-election as the
union's president--an illegal swap that later voided Carey's election
against James P. Hoffa. Last Nov. 19, a federal jury found Teamsters
political director William W. Hamilton guilty of embezzlement
for his part in the deal.
But could Hamilton have acted
on his own? Testimony in the trial showed that Trumka personally
turned over AFL-CIO funds to the Teamsters in the swap and may
have been involved from the start. In 1997, Trumka took the Fifth
Amendment when questioned by federal authorities and, in fact,
would not even talk to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.
Yet, on Nov. 21, 1997 Sweeney
ditched a 40-year-old union rule requiring resignation by Fifth
Amendment officials because Trumka "has explicitly denied
all wrongdoing." Shortly thereafter, Michigan Teamster leader
Lawrence Brennan noted lifetime suspension of lesser officials
for taking the Fifth and accused Sweeney of a "whitewash."
Hamilton faces up to 30 years
in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 29, and there has been speculation
that he might reduce the penalty by incriminating a major figure
such as Trumka. But Hamilton has obeyed the code of silence. Trumka's
lawyers have dismissed repeated reports that he will be a target
of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White.
Hoffa, elected as Teamsters
president in a new election forced by the scandal, has toned down
his criticism of Trumka in the interest of labor movement solidarity.
On CNN Dec. 4, Hoffa urged White to "pursue all avenues"
in further prosecutions but refused to name names. When I asked
whether Trumka should be forced to resign as secretary-treasurer,
Hoffa replied: "I'm not going to say whether he should or
Others in the Teamsters are
less interested in labor solidarity and more concerned with getting
even. They hope Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of a House Workforce
subcommittee, will turn the investigative spotlight on Trumka
if he escapes federal prosecution.
While Trumka's vulnerability
to prosecution kept him largely out of public view until Saturday
in Des Moines, it has not inhibited his political activity. He
was a principal player in winning the AFL-CIO's endorsement of
Gore last summer, and the vice president has been duly grateful.
President Ronald Reagan's Commission
on Organized Crime, headed by Federal Judge Irving R. Kaufman,
was critical of Reagan's public appearances with Teamsters President
Jackie Presser, who subsequently was prosecuted despite undercover
work for the FBI against mob connections. No current or future
president, Kaufman said, should be seen with a labor leader under
investigation. Gore does not buy that, and Trumka's chumminess
with the vice president makes it even less likely that he ever