AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka traveled first class from Washington to Des Moines last week to emerge from seclusion. A press release from the labor organization's Washington headquarters trumpeted Trumka's leading role at a Saturday rally for Al Gore, where he exhorted Iowa union members to back the vice president at Democratic caucuses Jan. 24. Earlier that afternoon, he was on national television seated prominently at Gore's debate with Bill Bradley.

Not much had been seen of Rich Trumka, big labor's second-in-command, since he took the Fifth Amendment about his role in the tainted 1996 Teamsters election. He was even a no-show at Seattle's World Trade Summit last month, where union colleagues berated globalism. So why should he suddenly roar out of the closet?

Perhaps Trumka is guessing or has been assured that he will not be implicated in federal prosecution of the Teamsters-AFL-CIO-Democratic scandal that has yielded one criminal conviction. But Trumka's labor critics have a different theory: He appeared boldly in Des Moines because he wants to show he is too big to fail. Attorney General Janet Reno's politicized Justice Department might well hesitate before prosecuting a close associate of the Democratic Party's putative new leader.

The case involves $885,000 distributed by the Teamsters to the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign in exchange for contributions to Ron Carey's reelection as the union's president--an illegal swap that later voided Carey's election against James P. Hoffa. Last Nov. 19, a federal jury found Teamsters political director William W. Hamilton guilty of embezzlement for his part in the deal.

But could Hamilton possibly have acted on his own? Testimony in the trial showed that Trumka personally turned over AFL-CIO funds to the Teamsters in the swap and may have been involved from the start. In 1997 Trumka took the Fifth Amendment when questioned by federal authorities and, in fact, would not even talk to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

Yet, on Nov. 21, 1997, Sweeney ditched a 40-year-old union rule requiring resignation by Fifth Amendment officials, because Trumka "has explicitly denied all wrongdoing." Shortly thereafter, Michigan Teamster leader Lawrence Brennan noted lifetime suspension of lesser officials for taking the Fifth and accused Sweeney of a "whitewash."

Hamilton faces up to 30 years in prison when he is sentenced Feb. 29, and there has been speculation that he might reduce the penalty by incriminating a major figure such as Trumka. But Hamilton has obeyed the code of silence. He has told a newspaper reporter, after his conviction as well as before it, that he has no information that would incriminate anybody else. Trumka's lawyers have dismissed repeated reports that he will yet be a target of U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White.

Hoffa, elected as Teamsters president in a new election forced by the scandal, has toned down his criticism of Trumka in the interest of labor movement solidarity. On CNN Dec. 4, Hoffa urged White to "pursue all avenues" in further prosecutions but refused to name names. When I asked whether Trumka should be forced to resign as secretary-treasurer, Hoffa replied: "I'm not going to say whether he should or not."

Others in the Teamsters are less interested in labor solidarity and more concerned with getting even. They hope Rep. Peter Hoekstra, chairman of a House Workforce subcommittee, will turn the investigative spotlight on Trumka if he escapes federal prosecution. Until now, Hoekstra has been hobbled by Janet Reno's Catch-22: Don't interfere with a possible criminal target-- who then is never targeted.

While Trumka's vulnerability to prosecution kept him largely out of public view until Saturday in Des Moines, it has not inhibited his political activity. He was a principal player in winning the AFL-CIO's endorsement of Gore last summer, and the vice president has been duly grateful.

President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Organized Crime, headed by federal judge Irving R. Kaufman, was critical of Reagan's public appearances with Teamsters President Jackie Presser, who was subsequently prosecuted despite undercover work for the FBI against mob connections. No current or future president, Kaufman said, should be seen with a labor leader under investigation. Al Gore does not buy that, and Rich Trumka's chumminess with the vice president makes it even less likely that he will ever face prosecution.

(c) 2000, Creators Syndicate Inc.