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Union Chief Apologizes on STB Nod
Thursday, 06 August 2009 00:00

UTU president hopes controversy won’t “derail” Elliott’s nomination

The head of the United Transportation Union sent a quick apology to key senators after members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee erupted in anger over a union claim of influence in the nomination of Daniel R. Elliott to lead the Surface Transportation Board.

The committee approved Elliott among a number of Obama administration nominees on Aug. 5, clearing them for confirmation by the full Senate. But the panel added a “hold” on Elliott’s choice so they could first deal with a UTU statement indicating the influence of its political action committee led to his nomination.

That hold would prevent the full Senate from voting on Elliott; if it is not removed in the days before an Aug. 10 recess begins, the Senate could not consider him for the STB until it returns next month. But the episode also left a cloud hanging over what had appeared to be a sure nomination.

“I want to profusely apologize,” UTU International President Malcolm Futhey said in his letter to committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va. and ranking Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas. “It is my sincere hope that my badly chosen words will not derail his confirmation.”

Futhey wrote that a July 7 union Web site article to members was “not in any way appropriate.” In it, he appeared to claim credit for the influence of UTU’s PAC for President Obama choosing UTU officials Joseph Szabo to lead the Federal Railroad Administration and Elliott to become chairman of the STB.

That PAC influence suggestion, Futhey said, “is certainly not an accurate reflection of the facts surrounding his nomination.” A UTU spokesman earlier said no PAC money from the union or other PACs went to Obama in his presidential campaign. Futhey sent his letter to the senators late on Aug. 5.

The committee voted to recommend Elliott and the other nominees to the full Senate with no dissenting votes. But Hutchison suggested and Rockefeller agreed that his approval would be subject to a “hold” by them, pending resolution of the union influence claim.

The controversy arose minutes before the scheduled vote. Rockefeller said he saw what committee members described as a UTU press release about the agency nominations just before the committee’s voting session got under way.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he discussed it with the chairman, and Hutchison distributed copies of the UTU report as the session opened so members would have it in hand before they voted on Elliott’s nomination.

Isakson then read from the UTU report. He praised Elliott’s qualifications but said he was concerned about “a statement that so blatantly referenced the leveraging of influence to cause an appointment to be made.”

Rockefeller agreed about what he called “this UTU idiocy,” and demanded an apology from Futhey.

A week earlier in Elliott’s nomination hearing, Rockefeller had repeatedly pressed the nominee to help captive shippers in their disputes with railroads, saying the 1980 deregulation law had been unfairly applied by regulators to benefit railroads and disadvantage shippers that have limited transportation options.

At that time, only Rockefeller and Hutchison asked questions of Elliott and other nominees, and no one mentioned the earlier UTU web site article mentioning its PAC.

Journal of Commerce, 8/6/2009