Presser case hints at inability of federal agencies to team up
Washington — United States law enforcement officials are in for a period of reassessment on how they handle major labor racketeering cases and, by implication, other investigations involving more than one federal agency. Concerns about the effectiveness of interagency coordination in federal investigations have been prompted by the handling of the off-again-on-again investigation of International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jackie Presser. He was indicted Friday for allegedly paying union associates some $700,000 for work they never performed.
The ``ghost worker'' scheme purportedly masterminded by Mr. Presser had been under investigation by the federal organized-crime strike force and Labor Department officials in Cleveland for four years.
But on the recommendation of the Justice Department, the case was dropped last summer after a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent stated that he had ``authorized'' Presser to make the ghost-worker payments.
The FBI agent, Robert S. Friedrick, of the bureau's Cleveland office, also was indicted last week on charges of lying to Justice Department officials to protect Presser from being charged in connection with the Labor Department investigation.
The FBI is reported to have considered Presser a prime source of information in building FBI organized-crime cases. (Presser denies being an FBI informant.)
The case underscores the debilitating impact of apparent interagency rivalries and personality conflicts. Interagency jealousies and distrust are known to have been strong between Labor Department investigators and agents in the FBI's Cleveland office.
The case also raises questions about how closely the Justice Department monitors the work of the FBI.
The Presser case also raises broader questions about the effectiveness of American labor laws and federal efforts to break the grip of organized crime and corruption on unions such as the Teamsters.
Although Presser's indictment came only three days before the start of this week's Teamsters convention in Las Vegas, Presser is expected easily to win reelection as president of the 1.6 million-member union.
Dissident Teamsters concede that it is unlikely that the charges against Presser will spark any movement among top Teamsters to clean up the union.
The Cleveland grand jury that indicted Mr. Friedrick claims that Justice Department officials were misled by Friedrick and other Cleveland FBI agents in an apparent attempt by the FBI agents to undermine the ongoing Labor Department investigation of Presser.
Friedrick's attorney maintains that his client is a ``casualty in a turf battle'' between the FBI, the Labor Department, and the Justice Department.
According to a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report, Friedrick and two other agents told their Justice Department superiors that on one occasion they asked Presser to place one of the ghost workers on the union payroll ``to prevent warfare between competing organized-crime factions in Cleveland.''
Under certain circumstances federal officials may authorize illicit activities by government informants if necessary to protect lives or to maintain a significant investigation.
Thus, when Friedrick told Justice Department officials of his arrangement with Presser, it placed government prosecutors in the difficult position of having to prove criminal intent for acts allegedly authorized by the FBI.
An internal Justice Department investigation subsequently concluded that Friedrick was lying, and that Presser had not been authorized to make the ghost worker payments.
The Presser case has been politically sensitive for the Reagan administration. Mr. Presser supported President Reagan in both the 1980 and '84.
Justice Department officials have repeatedly said that political considerations did not play a role in decisions concerning the Presser case. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report concluded that there was ``no evidence to support allegations of political influence.''
If convicted on all counts, Presser faces a maximum of 50 years in jail and $80,000 in fines. In addition, the government will argue that Presser should forfeit his nine union posts, including stepping down as president of the Teamsters. Friedrick faces a maximum of 25 years in prison and $50,000 in fines if convicted.