The words had an ominous ring. The agency had "acted collusively" and "willfully misappropriated congressionally authorized taxpayer funds, personnel and equipment."
Could this be another taxpayer ripoff? More painting of non-existent walls in exchange for contract kickbacks? Not quite.
These charges were leveled this week by the American Movers Conference against the Interstate Commerce Commission which American Movers accused of conspiring with the Columbia Broadcasting System to defame the household goods moving industry. In a letter to ICC chairman Daniel O'Neal, the trade association president, Welby M. Frantz, declared. "It is disheartening to learn commission officials are so eager to gain commercial television coverage of their exploits that they would be in complicity on this matter."
Replying to Frantz yesterday, O'Neal stated, "The American Movers Conference seems intent on attacking the messenger at the expense of the message." ICC spokesman Douglas Baldwin labeled Frantz' charges "ludicrous, a piece of baloney."
Dan Rather, the CBS reporter whose work triggered the exchange, said "On good days, I find (such reaction from pressure groups) laughable; on bad days, I find it disheartening."
The ruckus was caused by a 60 Minutes segment on the moving industry, scheduled to be aired in the fall. A CBS camera crew filmed ICC agent Lewis R. Teeple as he secretly recorded a conversation with a Bekins driver, Robert English. English described how easy it was to add weight, falsify weighing tickets, etcetera, practices the ICC has tried to stop. He admitted no wrongdoing on his part.
Rather later confronted English with the recording in the presence of Teeple. According to Rather, the driver then mentioned he had a sawed-off shotgun in his van. He was arrested by local police for illegal possession of firearms. Rather said the police also found defrauding equipment in the driver's possession.
Frantz charged in his letter to O'Neal, "The only purpose (of the confrontation), as we understand it, was to embarrass the industry through something the driver may have said and had in his possession during the surreptitiously recorded conversation."
Frantz accused the ICC of seeking to gain favorable publicity for itself through television. Instead of cooperating with CBS, said Frantz, the ICC should have alerted law enforcement officials. He also berated O'Neal for not cooperating with his trade association so that the matter of any illegal or improper activity could be handled by the industry.
"To date American Movers has not received the first scintilla of information from the ICC. Instead, we have seen uncorroborated statement after statement in the public media emanating from the commission denigrating the household goods moving industry," Frantz wrote.
An American Movers spokesman added the organization had no grudge against CBS, that it was not trying to stop the 60 Minutes segment, that in fact it welcomed the program. (Frantz has been invited to present his point of view on 60 Minutes.)
Frantz' attack was aimed at the ICC and its chairman who have been waging a vigorous public relations campaign to alert consumers to fraudulent practices by some movers. Frantz complained, "It appears commission officials, paid with taxpayers' money, are directly working for a commercial television network for the latter's financial benefit to discredit our industry. There can be no other conclusion."
O'Neal replied, "Your letter strongly implies that the commission had somehow promised to share with you information on criminal conduct in the household goods industry which is discovered in the course of our investigations. I cannot imagine that you seriously believe that . . . There are absolutely no conditions under which the ICC would turn investigatory material ver to representatives of the persons under scrutiny." He pledged to continue a strong media campaign.