How not to probe a union

Being asked to undertake a probe of the Teamsters union's $2.2 billion Central States Pension Fund might in a sense be likened to a baseball fan being sent into Yankee Stadium in the middle of the fifth inning and asked to look for a ball or bat. The possibilities for discovery are endless.

Precisely for that reason it can be understood why a Senate subcommittee this week expressed such dismay at the failure of a five-year investigation by the US Department of Labor into the pension fund. The Labor department, the Senate panel said, wasted a "historic opportunity" not just to reform the pension fund -- the second largest multiple-employer trust fund in the United States -- but to also reform the Teamsters, the nation's largest union.

The investigation, it might be recalled, began back in 1975, and followed the turbulence of that period within the union, including the disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa and allegations that major organized crime figures had either borrowed monies from or been involved with the pension fund.

Unfortunately, many questions yet remain to be answered about the connection between the Teamsters and possible abuses of the fund. Suspicions will continue at a time when the president of the union and other national officers are under indictment, as are a number of local officials of the union.

Of course, undertaking a probe -- and producing actual evidence of wrongdoing -- are quite distinct operations. Then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, back in the early 1960s, committed the not inconsiderable resources of his agency and the FBI to a lengthy probe of Mr. Hoffa, yet was unable to pin anything on him. The eventual conviction of Mr. Hoffa was based mainly on deeds undertaken by associates of the Teamsters president.

The federal government -- and in this case that means the Labor Department -- has been entrusted with a legislative obligation to investigate and resolve violations of pension trust funds. It would also seem within the purview of Labor to adequately investigate alleged corruption within the labor movement. For that reason it is somewhat disturbing that the Labor Department, according to the Senate panel, decided back in the mid-1970s not to use its subpoena power to obtain records of the pension fund, or to investigate the third parties -- often linked with organized crime -- who allegedly borrowed from or had dealings with the fund. The probe ended in 1980. On the positive side it should be noted that Labor was successful in wrestling control of fund assets from the Teamsters and turning them over to outside independent managers.

The Reagan administration -- and the Labor Department -- have a clear obligation to keep a close watch over the management of union pension funds in general, and the management of the Teamsters union in particular. Teamsters rank-and-file pension fund recipients might also remember that the outside management of the Central States Pension Fund expires next year and that the union is under no agreement at this time to continue that independent management.

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