Reformers Criticize Hoffa's Anti-Corruption Program

As part of his quest to end federal oversight and demonstrate his commitment to running a clean union, Teamsters President James Hoffa has launched a widely-publicized anti-corruption program, known as Project RISE (for "Respect, Integrity, Strength, Ethics"). Although RISE is still in its formative stages, the record so far casts serious doubt on the program's potential to help Teamster members.

RISE's centerpiece is a new "Code of Conduct," currently being developed by a 22-member "RISE Task Force." Attorney Ed Stier, Hoffa's appointee to oversee RISE, emphasizes that the task force represents different political factions within the union. But a large majority of the task force would be comfortable at a Hoffa campaign meeting, and only one supports the reform wing of the Teamsters.

The task force includes International Vice President Les Singer of Local 20 in Toledo, Ohio, who seems to have tolerated corruption in his own local. A business agent from Singer's local, David Poland, denied to a grand jury in 1997 that he gave sham membership status to owners of a local trucking company in order to provide them health insurance benefits. (The company was under investigation for laundering money for Colombian drug traffickers.)

Poland was charged with perjury, but Singer took no action against him. This year, Poland pleaded guilty and retired from Local 20. Afterward, Singer said that he has "no evidence that would indicate that [Poland] engaged in any misconduct relating to his responsibilities as an officer or employee of Teamsters Local 20."

"While Hoffa is using RISE as a PR campaign, his committee can't recognize unethical conduct right under their noses," said Ken Paff, National Organizer for Teamsters for a Democratic Union, the rank and file reform movement in the Teamsters. "Meanwhile, what Hoffa's actually doing inside the union is attacking reformers and punishing dissent."

WHAT NOT TO INCLUDE

In February members of the various task force subcommittees put together a list of recommendations for the new code of conduct; most focused on what should not be in it. Among the proposals on what not to include: limits on officer salaries, limits on multiple salaries, restrictions on nepotism, and job descriptions or performance evaluations for employees of the union (i.e. business agents). The task force also advised that "no-show jobs are wrong, but the Code should not contain a prohibition."

The recommendations then went back to the "RISE Committee," made up of key international union staff, Stier, and consultants from the Ethics Resource Center. The ERC is an advisor on "business ethics" to corporations, including Teamster employers. The committee then fashioned the recommendations into a "code of conduct discussion draft."

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Local 206 Business Agent Ron Teninty, the lone reform supporter on the RISE Task Force, thought the draft should go much farther. Teninty wrote to other task force members that "[Existing] law[s]...already cover most of what I saw in the subcommittee reports.... I believe our code of ethics should go beyond the law and create a model that will achieve the goals with which we started."

While avoiding naming specific standards for ethical behavior, the draft code does propose a dizzyingly complex enforcement mechanism, which includes an International Master Panel, an Investigations Unit, an Ethics Office, and an Ombuds Office. All members of the panel would be appointed by the General Executive Board, and the heads of the new offices would all be directly appointed by the General President.

"The way it stands now we have officers or their appointees hearing charges against themselves and their friends, so it's almost impossible to get a fair shake," said Minnesota Local 320 member Erik Jensen. "How will it be different if all these new enforcement officers have to answer directly to Hoffa? We need a real independent authority to make the enforcement mechanism work."

Regardless of the actual substance of Project RISE, Hoffa is doing a good job of publicizing it. The appointment of attorney Ed Stier to head up RISE lent the program credibility. Stier counts among his credentials leading a 13-year trusteeship to clean up mob-ridden New Jersey Local 560, long-time home of Genovese crime family captain Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano.

The New York Times hailed RISE as "the most ambitious anti-corruption program in decades," and Hoffa recently got the opportunity to outline RISE to a Congressional committee. He is also planning to showcase RISE's accomplishments in a "Labor Union Ethics Conference" he will host early next year.


Barry Eidlin is on the staff of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.