March 31, 2004, 11:47PM

More kickback denials on last day of hearings


A former officer of Teamsters Local 988 testified Wednesday that he didn't think storing one of the union's new $800 barbecue pits at his home was such a big deal.

Dennis Bankhead, the union's former secretary-treasurer, said he and 988's former president, Chuck Crawley, each kept one of two pits at home while the local's new hall was being built.

He said he thought the union's membership knew where the pits were, and when confronted about it by federal investigators, he quickly returned the pit.

"If this was going to be such a big deal, I would have done it earlier," Bankhead testified.

Bankhead's testimony came on the third and final day of hearings conducted by the Independent Review Board, a federal panel created to investigate corruption in the Teamsters Union.

Allegations by the board's investigators that Crawley, Bankhead and a staffer participated in kickback schemes and embezzlement of union money have already led to their ouster from office by Teamsters General President James Hoffa.

The three face possible banishment from the union, pending the panel's review of testimony gathered this week in Houston.

In addition to his testimony about the barbecue pits, Bankhead denied the allegations of other witnesses that he paid Crawley kickbacks.

"He never asked for one," Bankhead told the panel.

Staffer Marie Espinosa also denied any knowledge of kickbacks and countered claims by investigators that she inflated the costs of food and beverages she bought for the grand opening of 988's new hall and passed the difference on to Crawley. Espinosa testified that she inflated the prices on her own accord to generate enough cash flow to pay for the food and other supplies she'd need to buy.

She also testified she couldn't find the receipts for cash purchases of more than $3,000 in soda and beer that her mother purchased on her behalf, nor did the union request the receipts when it was reimbursing her.

Brenda Jean Espinosa testified Tuesday that she bought hundreds of cases of beer and soda at her daughter's request one week before the union would cut the ribbon on its new $2 million union hall. Marie Espinosa said she asked for her mother's help because she was out of town in the days shortly before the grand opening.

Although the panel concluded its hearing Wednesday afternoon, a decision on whether Crawley, Bankhead and Espinosa will be banned from the union isn't expected for several months.


 Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


April 2, 2004, 12:15AM


Where there's smoke, there's union bosses' testimony


 You couldn't smell it, but barbecue permeated the conference room at the J.W. Marriott Hotel earlier this week.

Though an oversight board was at the hotel to investigate allegations of Teamster kickbacks, payoffs and questionable cash transactions, some might have thought the three-day hearing was really about smoked meats.

Deals were made over barbecue, according to testimony. Profits were made on barbecue. Members were wooed to meetings by promises of barbecue.

Even some of the more serious issues investigated by the board had some connection to barbecue: Why did the two top officers of Teamsters Local 988 "store" barbecue pits purchased with union funds on their home patios for many months?

Was the receipt for the giant pits doctored by the suspended leaders to hide the purchase of the two custom-built wood-burning cookers?

And did union employees improperly profit from the big three-day barbecue bash to celebrate the new union hall in August 2002?

But also to emerge were the details that would be mundane to anyone else but barbecue lovers in the Lone Star State. How to cook it. Which fuel to use. How to season the pits. Which beer goes best with brisket.

"I'm not a purist," Dennis Bankhead told the board members, a former director of the FBI and CIA, a former U.S. attorney general and former U.S. attorney and frequent talk show guest, who didn't look as if they knew a lot about the finer points of saucing, marinating and grilling.

"I get instant gratification," explained the suspended secretary-treasurer about his preference for fast-cooking gas over charcoal or slow-burning wood.

That, of course, is heresy to the many Texans who prefer the traditional cooking method.

"In 15 minutes, I'm eating steak," said Bankhead, who freely added unsolicited detail of his obviously extensive knowledge of charred meat.

And from the testimony, it was clear Bankhead wasn't the only one who likes barbecue. Apparently that was what brought the members out.

"I wanted to go out to the membership and give them a T-shirt and cook the barbecue," testified Chuck Crawley, the suspended president of Teamsters Local 988 as he explained to the panel why he was so eager to print the shirts with the union's logo.

Sometimes union leaders wanted to keep the barbecue a secret for fear too many members would turn out.

It was called an "eatin' meetin', " Bankhead said in describing how he'd fire up one of the barbecue pits to reward members who showed up for a meeting.

But the grilled meat was a surprise. Otherwise, he testified, "We would have had 2,000 show up if we advertised free barbecue."

As for the question of whether Bankhead profited from the grand opening of the union hall?

No, he insisted. "It cost me money."

That's because, he said, he likes to wash his barbecue down with Shiner Bock, a beer that wasn't featured on the grand opening menu.

That forced him, he told the panel, to buy his own stash, which he iced down in his office.

So the testimony at the hearing went this week.


  Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


April 1, 2004, 11:14PM

Health costs threaten SBC's labor contract

Bloomberg News

As many as 100,000 employees at SBC Communications may be without labor contracts by Saturday as their union fights a plan to shift more health care costs to workers.

San Antonio-based SBC is seeking to charge technicians, call center employees, sales staff and retirees premiums for health benefits. The proposal would cost union members at least $2,400 annually, which is unacceptable, the Communications Workers of America says on its Web site.

SBC wants to cut company health expenses, which it says have risen an average of 14 percent a year since 1999, after 13 straight quarters of sales declines. Charging retirees premiums and higher fees to use medical care would save as much as $600 million annually, SBC said last month. The debate is making the talks more difficult to settle than in previous years, SBC said.

"From the union's perspective, benefits are something you get with the job. From the company's perspective, it's a cost item. It might be a strike issue," said Lowell Peterson, a labor attorney in New York City who has represented former WorldCom employees trying to get severance packages from the company.

The union has agreed to give 30 days notice before striking. There have been no walkouts at SBC since its purchase of Ameritech in 1999, according to union spokeswoman Candice Johnson. SBC and the union have been trying to negotiate new agreements since Feb. 12.

The union called SBC's announcement last month that it expected to save millions by shifting more costs to retirees "inflammatory." In a March 23 prepared statement, the union took issue with Chief Executive Officer Ed Whitacre's $19.5 million pay package, saying the company justified it by citing SBC's performance in 2003. SBC earned $8.5 billion last year, the most ever, and raised its dividend 11 percent.