To Some, Ex-union Boss' Sentence is Just Deserts

May 29, 2007: By Cindy George for the Houston Chronicle--For all the damaging acts blamed on Chuck Crawley, the worst was taking a man's livelihood, says Francis Pradier, who is paying off $50,000 in debt he ran up living on credit cards for a year after losing his job.

For Harry Bowers III and David McCormick, it's the more than $12,000 in legal bills they amassed defending themselves in court after telling the FBI about Crawley's corrupt activities as head of Teamsters Local 988 in Houston.

They, and others, may get some satisfaction today at Houston's federal courthouse when Crawley, 57, learns his sentence.

He was convicted in December for arranging a $20,000 kickback from a vendor and rigging the local's 2002 election. The combined penalty for mail fraud, two counts of embezzlement and falsifying union records is up to 31 years in prison and more than $250,000 in fines.

The path leading to this point can be traced back more than 30 years, to Crawley's failed effort to help an aspiring Teamsters president in Indianapolis. Along the way, former union brothers accused him of filing retaliatory lawsuits, stealing at least two elections in Houston and punishing rivals to win those Local 988 presidencies.

He started out trying to be a kingmaker, not a king. In the early 1970s, Crawley accused John M. "Jack" Murphy of drawing a gun on him before the Indianapolis election. Murphy was a top aide to the union president, and Crawley supported challenger Richard Spurgeon.

The incumbent won. Murphy, acquitted on the gun charge, sued Crawley and Spurgeon for malicious prosecution and was awarded $10,000. His lawyer says Murphy sued to restore his reputation and never collected a dime.

Some later schemes succeeded after Crawley began hauling freight in Texas and set his sights on running 988, Houston's largest Teamsters local.

'King Kong Chuck'

He styled himself as a reformer to win a disputed election for president in 1997, two years after the international union ousted Richard Hammond from the post. Hammond spent four years in federal prison after a 1998 conviction for embezzling union funds.

In 1999, the international union hired former federal prosecutor Ed Stier to investigate corruption. His report in 2003 accused Crawley of rigging union raffles, inflating prices for party supplies and giving raises to union officers and employees on the condition that they return a portion for Crawley's personal use.

Critics also decried a $1.7 million union hall built with nonunion labor.

"He was a ruthless, vindictive guy who, if he found out anybody was criticizing him, would retaliate severely," Stier said in a recent interview.

It was shameful, he added, because unions offer security to everyday working people in the form of contracts, health benefits, pensions and representation. Local 988 represents drivers hauling packages, cars, computers, pharmaceuticals, groceries and small freight.

The reign of "King Kong Chuck" ended in 2003 after probes by Stier's anti-corruption group and the FBI. Crawley was barred permanently from the Teamsters after the federal Independent Review Board, which monitors union corruption, held hearings in 2004. He was arrested last June.

Used panel power

Testimony and evidence about the 2002 election-rigging scheme for which Crawley was convicted pointed to 362 phony ballots marked for him.

Crawley eliminated opponents by making sure they weren't Teamsters by election time, two of his challengers said. And by heading the union side of a grievance panel that decided whether a member in trouble should keep his job, he had the means to do it.

Tim Gonzales was a 15-year UPS driver in 1998 when he announced a run against Crawley. UPS employees make up about two-thirds of the local's roughly 4,000 members.

Shortly before the vote, Gonzales was fired after a customer said she never received her package. As a shop steward, he had represented drivers in such cases who only had to pay for the missing package.

"It's something standard in the industry that no one would get terminated for, but (the firing) was upheld at the grievance panel," said Gonzales, 45, of Houston, who had been making about $60,000 a year. He is still seeking work in trucking.

"I can always bounce back," Gonzales said, "but I'm just glad to see Mr. Crawley get what's coming to him."

Grievance denied

An accident before the 2002 election wrecked trucker Earl China's hopes for the Local 988 presidency.

He had driven for more than 16 years without incident, but his grievance also was denied, ending his 27-year Teamsters membership.

"In our business, we have never heard of a man driving 2 million safe miles and having an accident and losing his job," said China, 59, of Spring. "It was devastating."

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