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Controversy Flares Over STB Nomination
Wednesday, 05 August 2009 00:00

Senate panel approves Elliott, but vows hold on nomination over union influence

An angry flare-up over a union influence claim led the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to both approve Daniel R. Elliott III’s nomination to head the Surface Transportation Board and to put a “hold” on it.

Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., denounced a claim by the United Transportation Union of leveraging influence with the Obama administration from its political affairs committee for the appointments of Elliott at STB and Joseph Szabo to head the Federal Railroad Administration.

The UTU is the largest rail labor organization, representing mostly train conductors along with some other railroad workers. The FRA oversees rail safety, while the STB regulates economic issues including rail mergers and disputes with freight shippers.

Rockefeller called the union claim “this UTU idiocy,” said the statement was “totally inappropriate, absolutely inexcusable” and said UTU International President Malcolm Futhey should “write a letter of apology to this committee.”

Committee members were quick to praise Elliott’s qualifications and say they did not think he was involved. But at the suggestion of ranking Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas the panel approved all the nominees with the understanding that Elliott’s approval would also be under a “hold” by Hutchison and Rockefeller. That prevents full Senate approval until the union influence issue can be resolved.

Earlier, as the committee prepared to vote on a long list of nominees for various senior jobs in the Obama administration, including the STB slot and several other transportation posts, Hutchison passed out to other members what she said was a “troubling” UTU press release so they could have it “as they are deciding about their vote on Dan Elliott.”

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., read from it a quote by Futhey saying the Elliott and Szabo selections are “a tribute to the political influence” of that union, “which flows from the UTU PAC. We have good reason to expect the president to reach into UTU ranks for other appointments in the future.”

Isakson said while Elliott “appears to be eminently qualified,” the UTU statement was “totally inappropriate and it reflects poorly on the nominee, who probably didn’t know the statement was made.”

Still, he said, it “troubled me as a member of the committee to receive a statement that so blatantly referenced the leveraging of influence to cause an appointment to be made.”

Rockefeller said “I would certainly hope people didn’t feel that Dan Elliott had anything to do with this. In the many years that I’ve been in this body that is one of the most embarrassing, ridiculous, selfaggrandizing, inappropriate, harmful—and a few other words—press release I can remember.”

A UTU spokesman clarified that the Futhey statement was not a press release but a posting on the group’s Web site, to emphasize the need for union members to participate in its PAC.

“The UTU is well aware that the president's selections of Joe Szabo and Dan Elliott were based on the merits of these two individuals and not PAC contributions,” said spokesman Frank Wilner. “Indeed, President Obama did not accept PAC contributions from the UTU or any other PAC during his recent campaign,” Wilner said.

He also said a letter addressing the issue would soon be sent to the committee.

Journal of Commerce, 8/5/2009