The occupational life expectancy of Teamsters union officials over the past decade has been about the same as that of second lieutenants in Vietnam. Court-appointed monitors, empowered by the union's 1989 consent decree that forestalled a threatened government takeover, have expelled more than 250 officials on charges ranging from gangsterism to simple embezzlement.
So the decision last month to discipline yet another Teamster, for filing false union campaign reports after hiring a convicted felon, received little notice. Another Teamster big found out. Another notch in the government's belt. The sentence, a mere nine-month suspension from office, made it even less noticeable.
But the suspension of Thomas R. O'Donnell, an International Brotherhood of Teamsters vice-president-at-large and longtime head of the theatrical and motion picture drivers local in New York City, is emerging as one of the most controversial actions so far by the union's outside overseers, who have otherwise won wide acclaim for their cleanup of the much tainted union. It has also raised questions that go right to the top of the administration of James P. Hoffa, the affable lawyer son of the fabled labor leader who now heads his father's old union.
So who's Tom O'Donnell?
Since 1961, he has headed the 270-member local that represents the drivers who move the props and cameras for every major movie and television show in the metropolitan area. He has won contracts that make his members the city's best-paid truckers, with wages up to $215 per day and pensions of $5500 per month. Members' children receive full college scholarships.
Similar Teamsters theatrical trucking locals in Chicago and Boston have been attacked for imposing costly burdens on the film business. But O'Donnell has been hailed by both industry and political figures. In 1994, Mayor Giulianiwho lodged the original racketeering case against the Teamsters when he was Manhattan U.S. Attorneygave O'Donnell the city's Crystal Apple Achievement Award for helping to bring movie jobs to the city. Last year, the Directors Guild of America honored O'Donnell for "upholding labor's rights while encouraging production in New York."
And while law enforcement officials have often glanced skeptically at his union's high-powered operation, they've never found sufficient reason to investigate. In fact, O'Donnell's fiercest confrontation came in the early 1980s when he resisted a takeover effort by thugs from the Westies, the notorious Irish American gang that preyed on businesses on Manhattan's West Side. O'Donnell received a pistol-whipping, but kept control.
O'Donnell was also no fan of the government's forcible intervention in the Teamsters. When old-guard Teamster leaders asked Hoffa to use his famous name to unseat the government-friendly regime of former Teamsters president Ron Carey, O'Donnell signed on to the ticket. It was during that 1996 election that his current troubles began.
According to documents released by the Teamsters Independent Review Boardthe three-member oversight panel made up of a former FBI chief, an ex-federal judge, and a labor lawyerO'Donnell was asked by Hoffa's campaign manager in May 1996 to hire Kevin Currie, a member of a Long Island freight-trucking local, to serve as campaign coordinator in the New York area.
O'Donnell grumbled about hiring an unknown but ultimately agreed after submitting the young Teamster to some direct questioning, including whether or not he had a criminal record. No, answered Currie.
Shortly afterward, a friend of O'Donnell's spotted Currie in the office. "I know that guy," said the visitor. "He got locked up for stealing a truckload of perfume."
O'Donnell checked. The friend was right. In March 1992, Currie pleaded guilty in Suffolk County to grand larceny in the fourth degree, a Class E felony. Lawyers told O'Donnell there was nothing illegal about having a convicted felon on the campaign payroll. But O'Donnell was furious and told Hoffa's aides he was going to fire him. O'Donnell said he was told that "Hoffa wants him anyways" and the aides pleaded with him to find a way to keep Currie as his coordinator. O'Donnell grumbled some more, but came up with a solution that he figured would embarrass Currie but still give Hoffa what he wanted.
Instead of paying Currie, O'Donnell had the checks made out to Currie's wife, Mary Ann, who was also working in the campaign. It was a boneheaded move, O'Donnell realized later. But Currie's involvement in the campaign was never hidden: He appeared on TV as a Hoffa spokesman and handed out business cards with his name and campaign title all over town. He was also openly listed on campaign reports for expense reimbursements. To make sure the campaign reports were accurately compiled, O'Donnell relied on a certified public accountant.
But problems with Currie continued, and in October 1996, O'Donnell called Hoffa's office and said he was firing Currie outright. What happened next is described in the Independent Review Board's decision against O'Donnell: "Mr. Currie was then immediately hired by the Hoffa Campaign and the same wage payment arrangement was followed by the Hoffa campaign."
Convicted felon Kevin Currie continued to work on the Hoffa-for-president campaign, while his wife got the checks: $12,684 from O'Donnell and an additional $7500 from Hoffa, records submitted by the review panel show.
Hoffa lost in a squeaker to Carey, but the election was later overturned after Carey was found to have taken massive, illegal campaign contributions. The Hoffa slate, O'Donnell included, coasted to victory in 1998.
In the meantime, news of the Currie affair reached the ear of the Teamsters' court-appointed elections officer, ex-Manhattan prosecutor Michael Cherkasky, who fined O'Donnell and Hoffa $20,184the amount paid to Currie's wife. Both men paid and thought that was the end of it.
But a few days after Hoffa won the second election, the Independent Review Board filed its own charges against O'Donnell for the Currie payments. No similar charges were filed against Hoffa.
Hoffa's relationship to Currie is unclear. His office failed to answer calls for this article. In 1991, shortly after Currie's arrest, Hoffa served briefly as counsel for Currie's union, Freight Drivers Local 707 in Hempstead, at a time when the local was enmeshed in controversy over the continued ties of some officials to organized-crime figures. Currie later surfaced as Hoffa's driver in New York during his campaigns.
When the new Teamsters president visited New York, Currie was part of the Hoffa entourage, and when a labor research group allied with Hoffa held a dinner in his honor (where President Clinton also spoke), Currie was hired to help get Teamster locals to buy tickets. Currie was also hired last year by Hoffa aides to help run another New York City Teamsters local that had been placed in trusteeship for corruption. He was forced from that job, however, after the union's independent investigators learned of it.
"The irony is that Kevin Currie, truck driver, has suffered much more draconian consequences than Thomas O'Donnell, vice president," said Currie's attorney, Bruce Maffeo.
The charges against O'Donnell lingered for two years. At one point, union officials ordered him to pay a $6500 fine, which he promptly paid. But the Independent Review Board rejected that as too lenient and held a new hearing on the matter in May and imposed the nine-month suspension against O'Donnell in November. O'Donnell, who is appealing his suspension, has had plenty of time to regret his mistake.
"I am now shy about $40,000 because of this worm and my own stupidity," he said.
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