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Teamsters Local 20 president steps down amid internal probe

Panel alleges financial improprieties

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The top Teamster official in northwest Ohio, Bill Lichtenwald, has been under fire for 10 months by a review board investigating financial impropriety by an Ohio unit and is resigning effective June 30.

Mr. Lichtenwald is Teamsters Local 20 president. He recently has resigned from or soon will step down from three other posts associated with the union.

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A watchdog group for the union, which has 1.3 million members nationwide, said it believes the Local 20 president was forced out because of the independent investigation.

But Mr. Lichtenwald, 62, said he is leaving for pragmatic reasons because retiring now affords him several years with a full pension. After that, he and 273,000 Teamster pensioners likely will face a serious loss of benefits if a union pension fund goes broke as expected.

“If I leave now, my wife and I get a full pension for about eight years. After that, we’ll see what happens,” Mr. Lichtenwald told The Blade on Thursday.

“So that’s what my decision was about. It’s just a practical thing to do,” he added. He has been Local 20 chief since 2001.

For the Teamster posts he held, he was compensated nearly $200,000 last year, according to figures compiled by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform activist organization consisting of union members.

John Roca, an attorney for Local 20, which has 5,500 members and whose office is at 435 S. Hawley St. in Toledo, said the local union’s executive board will choose an interim president to serve out Mr. Lichtenwald’s term, which expires at the end of the year. 

On the Local 20 website Thursday, however, Secretary-Treasurer Chuck Collinson was listed as the new interim president. That has yet to be decided, Mr. Roca said.

Mr. Lichtenwald this month resigned his position as a board member of the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund and his resignation from Local 20 means he must vacate his post as vice president of Teamsters Joint Council 41, another union governing body that oversees 24 union locals. He also has resigned his post as president of the Ohio Conference of Teamsters, a state governing body for the union.

Officials of Teamsters for a Democratic Union suggested that Mr. Lichtenwald’s departure was less about his pension than an investigation into allegations of fiscal mismanagement at the Ohio Conference of Teamsters.

The investigation accused Mr. Lichtenwald and two other Teamsters officials of spending funds without approval, and using funds for lavish parties and conferences.

Each Ohio local pays $1.25 per member per month to the conference, and the inquiry report said more than half of membership dues went to compensation to the Ohio Conference’s officers.

The inquiry, the findings of which were released in September, was conducted by the Independent Review Board in Washington, a three-person panel set up in 1992 under a consent decree between the national Teamsters union and the government with the goal of investigating corruption within the union.

“Joint Council 41 includes nearly 90 percent of Ohio’s locals. They could easily include the other 10 percent, so why would you need two bodies to oversee things?” asked Ken Paff, Teamsters for a Democratic Union president. “They’re just extra salaries.”

In the report, the Independent Review Board recommended placing the Ohio Conference in trusteeship, which was done in November, and removing Mr. Lichtenwald and two other officials from involvement with the conference.

“I think he was being eased out,” Mr. Paff said of Mr. Lichtenwald’s retirement.

After one of the review board’s three members said he would not pursue internal union charges against Mr. Lichtenwald if the Local 20 leader cooperated with investigators, the international union learned the panel still intended to charge Mr. Lichtenwald with several violations. The move has provoked a strong rebuke from the international union.

But Mr. Lichtenwald, who stressed that he was never charged with any wrongdoing, said the plans by the panel to charge him came well after he announced his intentions to retire following a May 6 meeting of the Central States Pension Fund board.

At that meeting, Treasury officials announced they would not sanction a union plan to cut pensions by 40 percent to try to preserve the pension fund for the long term. The result means no immediate pension changes to Teamster retirees, but that fund will be depleted over time.

“When the government turned down the pension plan, I knew it was time to retire,” Mr. Lichtenwald told The Blade.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

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