WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Four days after the House briefly debated rival campaign finance reform bills that both overlooked the AFL-CIO's political excesses, Big Labor got another break. A Clinton-appointed federal judge last Monday blocked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) from its scheduled release the next day of thousands of documents that neither the union nor the Democratic National Committee (DNC) wants made public.
This is evidence from the notorious 1996 national election, where the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO joined in questionable practices leading to the re-election of Bill Clinton. The supine FEC last year dismissed a Republican complaint that the party and the labor federation coordinated activities in violation of the law. At issue since then has been investigative files that Democrats and labor complain reveals too much of their political strategies.
Their concerns produced last Monday's injunction by U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler of the District of Columbia, whose career is closely tied to liberal-labor Democrats. Unless reversed, her edict would keep evidence out of the hands of congressional and Justice Department investigators until the five-year statute of limitations for embezzlement under the Landrum-Griffin Labor Reform Act expires in November. Labor appears to be getting another free pass.
Big Labor is untouched by the campaign finance reform pending in Congress. So far, it is escaping unscathed from its misadventures of 1996, including DNC and AFL-CIO collaboration in rigging that year's Teamsters election. Labor leader Richard Trumka has taken the Fifth Amendment about the plot but is still secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. Fund-raiser Terry McAuliffe, a business and political partner of labor in many ventures, is listed in one indictment as a party to conversations with alleged conspirators, but he is now chairman of the DNC.
Still, labor was uneasy about evidence collected by the FEC before, characteristically, ruling that there was nothing illegal about the 1996 collaboration between the AFL-CIO and the DNC. Republican Rep. Charlie Norwood of Georgia, chairman of the House Workforce Protections Subcommittee, requested 55,000 pages of documents. He was most interested in proof that labor was using union dues for political purposes without consent of members, but labor leaders did not relish the prospect of hostile investigators pouring over their political secrets shared by the Democratic Party.
Labor went to court, and -- as is often the case in the District of Columbia -- found a friendly judge. Before President Clinton named her to the federal bunch in 1995 at age 57, Gladys Kessler had worked for the National Labor Relations Board in the Kennedy administration, for left-wing Rep. Jonathan Bingham of the Bronx, as a labor lawyer for the New York City Board of Education and finally for 17 years as a superior court judge in D.C. appointed by President Jimmy Carter.
Kessler accepted the arguments by AFL-CIO counsel Michael Trister that the publication of the documents would violate the right of "privacy" that is so frequently invoked by liberal litigators. Using Trister's language, she ordered the FEC "not to disclose or otherwise make available to the public or to any individual requester (including Congress, any member thereof or any other government agency) any portion of the investigative files in matters under review."
That would mark another unopposed labor victory were it not for Charlie Norwood, the strong-willed country dentist from Evans, Ga. Last Wednesday, he wrote FEC Chairman Danny McDonald, calling on him to disregard Kessler's labor-drafted order and give Congress all the documents he has requested. Citing two 1929 decisions stemming from the Teapot Dome scandal, Norwood said, "Congress is entitled to documents that it deems necessary to its inquiries." At the same time, he asked the FEC to appeal Kessler's decision.
FEC sources who are not particularly well disposed to organized labor tell me that there is little incriminating information in the documents demanded by Norwood, but that is not the point. Even with the accession of a Republican administration, labor has yet to be called to account for its reckless behavior in the 1996 election or even to be singled out in the much-heralded campaign finance reform. A sole conservative congressman from Georgia is trying to redress the balance, slightly.