Teamsters officials told a Senate subcommittee yesterday they want to help the government resolve problems connected with the union's large Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund, but they charged that solutions are mired down in politics.
The fund, which now has nearly $3.5 billion in assets and $6.05 billion in unfunded liabilities, has been the target of government investigations since 1973. The Internal Revenue Service, the Justice and Labor departments, and the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, have taken turns probing allegations of mismanagement of assets and the influence of organized crime in the fund's operation.
The Labor Department has filed a number of lawsuits, two of which are pending, in an effort to recoup beneficiary losses in the troubled fund. By the government's own accounting, however, all the legal activity has produced more headlines than solutions.
The featured witness before the Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations was George W. Lehr, a former banker and public official who is the fund's new executive director and the man the union touts as its "Mr. Clean." Lehr was brought on to respond to Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan, who told the committee on Tuesday that his department has started "an intensive investigation of the current activities" of the fund in a crackdown on alleged union corruption.
But the secretary's solicitor, T. Timothy Ryan Jr., said talks between the department and the Teamsters broke down about two weeks ago because the union refused to entertain government proposals that it alter its procedures for selecting pension fund trustees and that it name trustees who have no connection with the Teamsters or the trucking industry.
Lehr said yesterday that the union still opposes the trustee proposals.
"What it comes down to is whether the government is going to run the pension fund, or whether the Teamsters are going to run it," he said. But he said talks broke off because Labor Department officials apparently were trying to get an agreement before the subcommittee's hearings began Wednesday.
"I'm not blaming DOL, but I think the timing was a factor," Lehr said.
His implication was that if the Labor Department could not go before the subcommittee with a victory--an agreement--it wanted to go before it as an aggressive foe of union wrongdoing because the committee has scathingly criticized what it calls past Labor bungling of the pension fund probe.
Lehr, described by the union as an "independent investment manager" of the fund, said he once was the personal banker of Teamsters President Roy L. Williams and is still his "close personal friend."