Kansas City played a leading role in the 1970s saga that turned the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund into a symbol of mob influence.
Nick Civella, a big name in Kansas City’s organized crime, had close ties to Roy L. Williams, the Kansas City Teamsters leader who was one of the fund’s first trustees.
Federal prosecutors charged that Williams, Teamsters head Jimmy Hoffa and others fell under the control of organized crime and turned the pension fund into a personal bank for the mob.
The scandal marked the first of many problems plaguing the pension fund that now seeks to cut retirees’ checks to keep itself from failing. Many blame the 2008 financial crisis and deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1980s for its woes today.
“The root of this problem goes much deeper, before trucking deregulation,” said Steve Vadasz, a retired Teamster who draws most of his pension from a different fund that covers his years as a bus driver.
Vadasz said he was shocked by what he read in the 1978 book by journalist Steven Brill, “The Teamsters,” that chronicled the ties.
Kansas City also should be remembered as providing the man who helped break the fund’s mob ties.
George Lehr, once Missouri’s state auditor, was chairman of the Traders Bank in Kansas City when Central States agreed to install him as its executive director. Lehr’s efforts to clean up the fund earned recognition in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes magazine, metropolitan newspapers and publications that focused on the pension industry.
And Lehr said he did it though he was “a close personal friend” of Williams.