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Hoffa Cleared to Run in New Race for Teamster Presidency

By Frank Swoboda
The Washington Post

Federal investigators Monday cleared James P. Hoffa to run for the Teamster presidency, making the son of the infamous Jimmy Hoffa the frontrunner in the race to control the nation's largest trade union.

The action came as prosecutors probing links between the Teamsters financial scandal and the Democratic National Committee announced the indictment of the union's former political director.

A federal grand jury in New York handed up the six-count indictment against William W. Hamilton Jr. in connection with alleged schemes to help finance the re-election campaign of Teamsters President Ron Carey. This included a plan to swap money from the union's treasury with the Democrats. He was charged with conspiracy, embezzlement of Teamsters funds, mail fraud, wire fraud and perjury.

As a result of the scandal, Carey's narrow 1996 election victory over Hoffa has been thrown out, a new election has been ordered and Carey has been disqualified from running. Three other Carey campaign operatives, including his campaign manager, have pleaded guilty to criminal conspiracy charges in connection with the campaign finances.

Now, it appears that three decades after Jimmy Hoffa was removed from office and jailed, his son may be on the verge of returning the family name to the top of the Teamsters, aided, ironically, by a multimillion dollar government effort to clean up the union.

"The Hoffa family devotion to the Teamsters endures, continues and will only end in victory," James Hoffa told reporters as he hailed Monday's government action, which also found some irregularities in Hoffa's 1996 campaign. He said he couldn't wait to get into Teamster headquarters.

Hamilton's indictment, meanwhile, suggests the probe into Teamsters' finances is reaching a new stage. Mary Jo White, the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan, said at least one of the schemes involved a $236,500 Teamsters contribution made by Hamilton to various state Democratic parties at the request of the Democratic National Committee, which had earlier discussed the swap scheme with other officials connected with the Carey campaign.

Investigators believe DNC and officials of the re-election effort for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore arranged to raise money for the Carey campaign in exchange for political donations from the Teamsters treasury.

Since the financing scandals first came to light nearly a year ago, Hamilton has been seen as one of the keys to any case the government might try to make against the DNC. Hamilton has refused to testify before the grand jury or cooperate with federal prosecutors, and sources close to the probe said Monday's long list of charges was intended to squeeze Hamilton into cooperating.

Hamilton, 55, is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday, May 7. His attorney, Robert Gage, said Monday that Hamilton, who faces up to five years in jail and a fine of $250,000 on each count, was "innocent of all charges and we look forward to our day in court."

"This is an obvious effort to break Hamilton and get him to testify against others," said Reid Weingarten, an attorney for Carey. "It's likely to fail. I don't believe Hamilton got a dime. I believe he was an unwitting participant."

A spokesman for the DNC declined to comment, saying the DNC has a policy of avoiding talking about ongoing federal investigations. DNC and Clinton/Gore campaign officials have previously denied any wrongdoing.

The direct, government-supervised election of national Teamsters officers is the result of a 1989 consent decree between the government and the Teamsters to settle a civil racketeering suit against the union. Since then, the union has been operating under court supervision.

Hoffa was cleared to run by Michael Cherkasky, the federal elections officer who has investigated the finances of the 1996 Hoffa campaign since late last year. "The election officer did not find evidence of large-scale cheating or other improprieties to warrant disqualification of Mr. Hoffa or any member of his slate," said Cherkasky, a veteran prosecutor who said he reviewed more than 50,000 documents, audited 28 entities and interviewed more than 300 people during the course of his investigation.

"This investigation found that I am an honest man who ran an honest campaign," Hoffa said, calling the report a vindication against the "vicious attacks against me."

Hoffa declined to describe himself as the frontrunner in the election. "We're not going to take anything for granted," he said.