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The city should challenge the court consent decree under which the city is mandated to provide bilingual classes, said an agitated Mastro.

Then, as quoted by the Daily News' Juan Gonzalez, the former prosecutor went a step further. "Government by consent decree is a generally bad model," said Mastro.

Over at City Hall, Mayor Giuliani echoed that thought, taking it up a few notches as usual: "I think consent decrees are a terrible mistake," said the mayor.

The statements made some Teamsters do double takes. Back in 1988, when Giuliani was U.S. attorney in Manhattan and Mastro a top assistant, the two men put together the massive federal civil racketeering lawsuit against the Teamsters union, alleging that the union was under the mob's thumb.

The case never went to court, however, because in 1989, Mastro (Giuliani left the office a few weeks earlier) agreed to settle it with a . . . consent decree.

The court-supervised agreement has endured ever since, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the powerful union. Some members liked it; some hated it, claiming to this day that it put the government in the middle of the labor movement, where it didn't belong.

But like it or not, it was a major instance of government by consent decree.

Asked recently if he wasn't being contradictory, Mastro didn't miss a beat.

"Totally different issue," said the attorney. "I meant government by consent decree in the context of bilingual education. There, you have a governmental function that needs to be performed and a court in essence takes that over. That's a very different issue than using the remedial aspects of the law against racketeering."

But didn't the courts and government substitute their judgment for that of the members in the Teamsters case?

Mastro quickly switched tracks. "Look," he said, "we made tremendous strides and gave the union back to its members, who get to elect their leaders. I can't imagine there are too many Teamsters out there who don't appreciate that."

True. Just as thousands of non-English-speaking New Yorkers have been thankful that a deal cut in court gave them the right to rely on their native tongue as they learned the English language.

Research: James Wong

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