Despite legal probes, Jackie Presser seems a cinch for Teamster reelection

Federal investigations seem to come with the job. But if you are Jackie Presser, president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, such probes apparently are no big deal. Despite predictions by Justice Department officials that he will be indicted by a federal grand jury in Cleveland this week, Mr. Presser is expected to win reelection easily next week at the Teamsters union convention in Las Vegas, Nev.

How can a man with alleged ties to organized crime and who is reported to be under investigation for misuse of union money be the overwhelming favorite of 2,000 Teamsters delegates?

``I think [Presser and his officers] believe in their minds that they are untouchable and that the system won't ever be changed,'' says Sam Theodus, who as Presser's top challenger is expected to garner a mere handful of votes in his race for the union presidency.

Presser's popularity among teamsters is a subject of great debate. Presser sup-porters claim he is genuinely popular with the rank and file. Anti-Presser forces counter that anyone who says Presser is good for the Teamsters has either been paid off, threatened, or both.

Kenneth Paff of the reform-oriented Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) has his own theory on the mechanics of Presser's expected landslide win. ``It is a rigged convention,'' Mr. Paff says. ``We don't regard this as an election any more than there is an election in Russia.''

According to public-interest lawyer Arthur Fox, ``The entire electoral process is very carefully set up to guarantee that it is nothing more than a democratic charade. The incumbent writes the script and it gets played out.''

Teamsters officials did not return repeated telephone calls to their offices. But lawyers for the 1.6 million-member union have said in the past that the union's elections and conventions are in full compliance with United States labor laws.

The President's Commission on Organized Crime disagrees. A recent crime commission report says the current Teamsters election process ``has defied the intent of the law.''

Presser's grip on the nation's largest union extends far beyond his apparent influence in union elections. According to dissident teamsters and law enforcement officials, Presser has the power to make or break most local union officials. He is said to be in an ideal position to reward local union leaders for their loyalty or punish them for disobedience.

Though the threat of ``cement shoes'' and other forms of violent persuasion are said to still exist as tactics within the Teamsters, many members say they are more concerned about what they call ``economic violence.''

``There is more fear about retribution on the job -- getting fired, losing grievances in front of the panel -- than there is about having your legs broken,'' says Rick Smith of the TDU in Detroit.

In addition, dissident members say that Presser's apparent ability to avoid federal prosecution and his image of being well connected with both the Reagan administration and members of the criminal underworld contribute to a perception among rank-and-file union members that he enjoys a special status above the law. Such a perception discourages reform-minded Teamsters from even trying to challenge the leadership, dissident teamsters and others say.

``The Justice Department won't do anything to this guy,'' Mr. Theodus says. ``The FBI made a deal with him, and the President of the United States supports him. What is the rank and file to think?''

[Last year, following a 32-month investigation, the Justice Department's organized-crime task force office in Cleveland recommended that Presser be indicted for allegedly misusing union funds. However, the department rejected the recommendation, purportedly because Presser was a Federal Bureau of Investigation informant. The probe was subsequently reopened and is expected to result in an indictment of Presser.

[On Friday, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a hearing on the Justice Department's handling of the probe.]

According to the President's Commission on Organized Crime, Presser was handpicked in 1983 by the Cleveland organized-crime family to succeed Roy Williams as president of the Teamsters. The choice was subsequently endorsed, the report said, by Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno of New York City's Genovese crime family.

The organized-crime commission noted, ``Even before assuming the presidency, Jackie Presser had compiled an extensive record of organized crime associations.''

Presser's supporters within the Teamsters say that such statements are unsubstantiated allegations and lies that are being used by disgruntled management and Teamsters dissidents to undermine Presser's power.

Historically, rank-and-file elections have had little to do with deciding who remains in power within the upper echelons of the Teamsters, according to federal officials and union members. The union presidency has never seen a closely contested election. And in the past 30 years, the door out of the executive suite for incumbent presidents has been opened only by death or criminal conviction.

Jackie Presser has never faced a rank-and-file election, even at the local level. His rise to the top of the Teamsters has come as a result of appointments to union leadership positions and internal votes among top Teamsters. Presser's fellow Teamsters vice-presidents appointed him in 1983 to serve out the rest of Williams's five-year term.

Theodus, Paff, and other dissident teamsters are pushing to reform the way the union chooses its top officials. They maintain that the current system of designating ex officio delegates to the Teamster convention deprives union members of having a direct voice in deciding who will run the union. They add that the current system makes it much harder to break the grip of organized-crime figures on top union officers.

Despite the conclusion of the crime commission that Teamsters election processes were unlawful, the Labor Department recently defended the processes in federal court, rejecting proposed democratic reforms as unnecessary.

When contacted last week, a Labor Department spokesman declined to comment on the issue, noting that the department was involved in a related case in federal court.

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