The national office of the Teamsters took over a 1,700-member Baltimore local yesterday, alleging that the unit's president accepted kickbacks and allowed an apartment in the union hall to be used by prostitutes.
Ron Carey, the first Teamsters president elected by the rank and file, said he had appointed a trustee to investigate and oversee Local 557 because, "We want to get the message out that corruption is part of the past."
"The Teamsters have lived with 90 years of taunts about corruption," said Mr. Carey, who won his post after the federal government took over the union because of allegations of mob influence. "The people in Baltimore should not have to tolerate wrongdoing."
Local 557 president John Clemens branded the allegations "false information provided by individuals who have malicious and political motives."
Mr. Clemens said he would file slander charges against his accusers "for doing irreparable damage to my reputation."
By placing him on unpaid leave, Mr. Clemens said, Mr. Carey was aiding a slate of local office candidates who opposed him and were members of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group that has backed Mr. Carey.
Local 557 had scheduled an election of new officers next month, but yesterday's action will postpone that vote, Teamsters officials said.
Mr. Carey, who calls himself a "New Teamster" is running against James Hoffa Jr., who calls himself a "Real Teamster" for leadership of the 1.3-million member union. The international election will be held late next year.
In a news conference at the Erdman Avenue union hall yesterday afternoon, Mr. Carey said he had appointed a trustee because an internal investigation had indicated that Mr. Clemens had pocketed some of the money paid by concessionaires for use of the union's auditorium.
Mr. Carey declined to name the concessionaires, or the sources of his information. He also declined to provide any evidence of his allegations, saying he didn't want to jeopardize a union investigation.
But he said an internal union investigation showed Mr. Clemens and another local official had each collected about $15,000 in the last two years.
In addition, Mr. Carey alleged that Mr. Clemens had rented out the auditorium for strip shows and had let prostitutes use an apartment attached to the hall.
Mr. Carey said that in April police arrested a prostitute at the apartment.
Mr. Carey's aides took reporters on a tour of the apartment and pointed to a burnt spoon, needle caps and other evidence of alleged drug use littered about one bedroom.
Sgt. Lester Geesey, of the vice squad for the city Police Department's Southeastern District, said his officers have heard rumors about strip shows at the Teamsters hall but have never found any illegal activity at the building.
"Nobody ever tells the vice squad ahead of time," he said.
Although he didn't recall his unit making any arrest at the union hall in April, other units might have answered a call, Sgt. Geesey said.
Among the companies that Local 557 services are Carolina Freightways, Yellow Freight System Inc., Ryder System Inc. and Adell Plastics in North Linthicum.
Local 557 retirees, gathered outside the hall for their monthly meeting yesterday, said they were angry about the takeover.
One yelled at the members of the takeover team: "You're afraid of Jimmy Hoffa's son."
Peter Tsambikos, a retiree and former local official, said he liked Mr. Clemens because "he has done so much for the seniors," and charged that the takeover was politically motivated.
Mr. Carey insisted, however, that he had nothing against Mr. Clemens. He said Mr. Clemens, although not a formal member of the Teamsters' reform movement, had supported many of his actions.
Mr. Carey said that over the next 30 days he will appoint a panel to hear Mr. Clemens' case. The trusteeship will not last longer than 18 months, he predicted.
This was the 52nd Teamsters local -- and second in Baltimore -- that he has placed under trusteeship since taking office in 1991, he said.
In July last year, the international took over Local 103 in Baltimore, which represented about 1,200 state employees, charging that the leaders had failed to pay the local's debts and pursue the members' grievances.
Local 557's new trustee, 67-year-old Gene Shiflett, said yesterday that his first order of business would be to change all the bank accounts and to go over the union's contracts.
Mr. Shiflett, who had run Baltimore-based Local 311 in the late 1980s, said taking control of another local was "not a pleasant feeling."
As a retiree, Mr. Shiflett noted that he is not eligible to vote in union elections and said that he hoped to stay out of the union's political disputes.
The takeover, he said, should not affect a 4-week-old strike against Ryder System. Local 557 has 1,200 truck drivers and also represents freight handlers and factory workers.