The International Brotherhood of Teamsters' takeover of Local 988 last November had that certain tabloid quality that has been associated with the union for decades. Jim Buck, the trustee appointed by International president Ron Carey to manage the local's affairs, arrived unannounced at the union's Heights-area hall with the bad news: A months-long audit of Local 988's books revealed that Richard Hammond, who had headed the local for 25 years, had embezzled almost $28,000 in membership funds. The money had been charged to the union's American Express card for such personal items as monogrammed luggage, hunting trips to Mexico, clothing and guns.

Hammond refused to turn the local over to Buck, who subsequently obtained a federal court order against the local president and other Local 988 officers. Rumors of impending violence swirled. Within 24 hours, Buck had moved into Hammond's office and begun sifting through the local's records and firing and replacing staff. The trustee accused Hammond of shredding documents, destroying computer files and carting important papers out of the building under cover of darkness.

Over the months, the charges against Hammond swelled to epic proportions. By the time a panel appointed by Carey convened in May to hear the case, Hammond's alleged illicit credit-card tally approached $200,000. In addition, he was accused of looting more than $100,000 from a pair of union funds, and ten other officers and employees had been cited for theft or breach of conduct. Periodic news accounts mentioned assault weapons, monogrammed silk underwear and a cache of illegal explosives that were allegedly found in a self-storage shed rented by the union.

"The abuse here was so mind-boggling," says Buck. "Ray Charles could have followed the path."

In September, Hammond was indicted by a federal grand jury on 13 counts of embezzlement paralleling the union's charges, as well as making false statements on a bank loan application. A month later, an additional count of income tax evasion was tacked on. If convicted on all charges, Hammond faces up to 125 years in prison and fines of up to $6.25 million.

Hammond and his many allies in the union say the charges are a blatantly political move orchestrated by Ron Carey, who is locked in a tight election battle for the presidency of the International with James P. Hoffa, son of the late Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. Since Carey took office in 1991, Hammond has been one of his most outspoken critics and a vocal Hoffa supporter. The ousted local president notes that Carey has installed trustees at 65 locals around the country, most if not all of them controlled by Carey opponents, and says he's being punished for the same reasons as the others. "I wasn't smart enough to keep my mouth shut," Hammond says.

About the only thing missing from the saga of Local 988 is an allegation of mob ties, something that surfaced in Dallas after the International wrested control of Local 945 from longtime president T.C. Stone in August.

The sensational nature of the charges and countercharges wearies all but the most hardened of Local 988's more than 3,600 members, who must live with the public perception of their union as fat and corrupt.

"Every time you meet someone and you tell 'em you're a Teamster, they want to think you're a gangster, you're overpaid and you're lazy,' says Paul Rogers, a truck driver for Yellow Freight and a Teamster for the last 30 years. "The people who don't work for a union, they hear so much negative press, they believe it."

It's hard for the members themselves to know what to believe these days. The two factions have become so firmly entrenched that even the most outrageous claims are repeated as gospel. Current Local 988 organizer Tom Mitchell says Hammond cut deals with management and let his opponents take the fall; Hammond calls Mitchell "a lying rat bastard." Hammond says Buck wouldn't let him call witnesses at his Teamster hearing; Buck calls the charge "another blatant lie."

One recent rumor, fueled by an incendiary Hoffa campaign piece, had Buck pegged as a ten-year Manley Truck Lines supervisor who fired an entire shift of Teamsters. Buck says he drove for Manley in Kansas City before a Local 41 steward helped land him an 11-month stint as a dock foreman. After that, he was hired as a union staff member. "If [the charges] were true, why would the president of Local 41 help get me a job?" he asks dismissively. "Tell enough lies, and some of 'em will stick."

Buck anticipates that the local's affairs will be straight enough to dissolve the trusteeship early in 1997. But that's not likely to end the schism that has divided the union and set Brother against Brother, because both sides will be in the thick of the election for officers that will follow. If the International takes disciplinary action against Hammond, a likely scenario given previous actions against other local leaders, he'll probably be ineligible to run for office, though he says he'll challenge that in court.

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Bob Burtman