Houston Boss Convicted for Fixing Election, Taking Kickback

When it comes to securing a conviction, small details often matter most.  And federal prosecutors had some small powerful ones in their case against Charles “Chuck” Crawley, former president of Teamsters Local 988 in Houston.  Crawley, 56, headed the union until his removal in 2003, when an investigation concluded that he’d rigged his re-election of the previous year.  On top of that, said prosecutors, he demanded a kickback from a union vendor who’d installed a phone system.  These charges, incidentally, originated with Ed Stier and his staff.  After four days of hearing testimony, jurors on December 8 voted to convict Crawley all counts.  Crawley, ironically enough, had been elected as a reformer in 1997, two years after the removal of his predecessor, Richard Hammond, by a trustee for embezzlement of union funds; Hammond later was sentenced to four years in prison.  With Crawley’s conviction, that makes four Local 988 presidents to be convicted on federal charges since 1992. 


The prosecution’s charge of election-rigging rested on some key evidence.  First, Crawley allegedly used the union’s computer system to generate phony ballots and then used the mail to cast 362 of those ballots in the names of union members whom he felt were unlikely to vote.  His guess was about 90 percent accurate – in other words, not quite good enough.  Thirty-six of those persons did vote.  That raised suspicions and ultimately triggered an investigation. Even more decisive in determining the lack of legitimacy of the ballots was the stamp-reminder box in the upper-right-hand corner of each envelope. Business Extension Bureau, a Houston printing company, produced the ballots.  Ro Royal, company executive vice president, testified that all return envelopes in his batch included a box in the upper-right-hand corner that contained the words:  PLACE FIRST-CLASS POSTAGE HERE.  The firm’s printing supervisor, Bill Washam, said he “absolutely did not” print any return envelopes lacking the indicia.  Garry Kyle, a former union official executive, said he went to the boss’s house days before the mail-in voting deadline to help with his campaign.  When he walked into Crawley’s study, he “knew something was wrong.”  Kyle testified that he saw a printout of the Local 988 membership, a stack of unmarked election ballots and unsealed return envelopes.  Kyle and Crawley then formed a mini-assembly line.  Crawley chose members from the roster he predicted would not vote, marking phony ballots for them; Kyle placed each ballot in an envelope, sealed it, and placed a postage stamp on it.   


Prosecutors also accused Crawley of accepting a $20,000 kickback from a local vendor who had installed a telephone system at the local’s new $1.7 million union hall.  The vendor testified that he offered to sell the union a phone system for $32,000, but that Crawley asked him to add $20,000.  Justice Department trial attorney Vincent Falvo said Crawley told the vendor who installed the telephone system in the building, “There will be no other bids.  This is my union hall.”


Ned Barnett, Crawley’s attorney, believes his client was given a bum steer.  Prosecutors unfairly targeted him, he said, while granting immunity to unreliable witnesses who lied on the stand to save themselves.  “They wanted Mr. Crawley,” Barnett said.  “They had their minds made up.  He’s the prize.  He’s the trophy.”  Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Wright called the allegation absurd, saying the evidence pointing to Crawley’s guilt was overwhelming.  Upon conviction, Crawley immediately was remanded into custody pending sentencing on March 23.  (Houston Chronicle, 12/6/06, 12/9/06; other sources).