Who Is Harold Ickes?
BY MICAH MORRISON
As the Senate was voting not to remove Bill Clinton from office after impeachment by the House, Hillary Clinton signaled her seriousness about running for the U.S. Senate. She summoned Harold M. Ickes Jr. to a secret meeting at the White House. That day, her campaign began. To this day, Mr. Ickes remains by her side. Despite the low-key title “advisor,” he is the dominant behind-the-scenes figure in the campaign.
The secret meeting that launched Mrs. Clinton's candidacy is recounted in Washington Post reporter Peter Baker's new book, “The Breach: Inside the Impeachment and Trial of William Jefferson Clinton.” Mr. Ickes doesn't get much attention in the book, but New Yorkers ought to take a close look at the mastermind of the Clinton Senate campaign. A vote for Hillary is a vote for Harold. Should Mrs. Clinton win, she and Mr. Ickes will be poised to take over the New York Democratic Party.
Mr. Ickes is a New Yorker par excellance, though his career there is reminiscent of some of Mrs. Clinton's Arkansas friends. As a Razorback, Mrs. Clinton had problems with a miraculous $100,000 profit in cattle futures, the Castle Grande land scheme, the Rose Law Firm billing records. In moving her residence to New York, she has put herself in the hands of a skilled labor lawyer and former deputy White House chief of staff with a history of representing unions, some of them with eyebrow-raising ties to organized crime.
The son of Harold M. Ickes, FDR's secretary of interior, the younger Mr. Ickes toiled for years in the vineyards of the left wing of Democratic Party politics. In 1977, he joined the influential Long Island law firm of Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein. Interviewed yesterday, Mr. Ickes expressed surprise that he would be the subject of a newspaper article. “You're doing an article about me? Why?!” He defended his record and at times controversial client list. “I'm head of our firm's labor department,” Mr. Ickes said. “We have a lot of labor clients."
There is no evidence of ethical impropriety by the law firm, and Mr. Ickes has never been charged with a crime. But the combative lawyer has tangled with law-enforcement authorities and congressional investigators over many issues—union cases, the Whitewater investigation, the 1996 campaign-finance scandal.
From 1983 to 1991, one of Mr. Ickes's major clients was Local 100 of the Hotel and Restaurant Workers International. In 1992, Local 100 settled a civil racketeering suit charging that the union was controlled by the Colombo and Gambino crime organizations, two New York-based Mafia families. In the settlement, Local 100 President Anthony “Chickie” Amodeo resigned and the union was placed under federal trusteeship.
According to published reports, during a 1985 interview by investigators, at which Mr. Ickes was present, Mr. Amodeo said he had known Paul Castellano, boss of the Gambino family, for more than 40 years. In 1983, investigators secretly recorded Mr. Castellano and Mr. Amodeo discussing payoffs. Mr. Castellano was taped saying that Local 100 “was my union and I don't want anything happening to it.” He was gunned down in 1985. His successor as head of the Gambinos, John Gotti, was convicted of the murder in 1992.
Bill Cunningham, managing partner of Meyer, Suozzi, says the firm “stopped representing Local 100 in January 1992.” The firm was “absolutely not” aware of any ties between Local 100 and organized crime. Contrary to published reports, he said, Mr. Amodeo “did not answer any questions in Harold's presence about Paul Castellano.”
Mr. Ickes hit the political big time with Bill Clinton. He managed Mr. Clinton's 1992 primary race in New York and ran the Democratic National Convention that year. In 1993, he resigned from his law firm and went to Washington in 1994 as deputy White House chief of staff. According to his 1994 federal disclosure statement, Mr. Ickes had other clients that can be shown to have links to organized crime.
One was the New York City District Council of Carpenters, charged in a 1990 civil racketeering suit with being controlled by the Genovese crime family. The union later agreed to federal oversight. “Our firm represented the Carpenters,” Mr Ickes said yesterday. “I didn't personally represent them.”
As head of his law firm's labor department, Mr. Ickes presumably played some role in representing New Jersey Teamsters Local 560, also noted on his federal disclosure statement. The union was accused in a 1986 racketeering suit with using murder and beatings to silence opposition to union boss Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a member of the Genovese crime family. The charges resulted in the appointment of a trustee to run the union. “I was deliberately very broad on the disclosure,” Mr. Ickes said. “But I never personally had a thing to do with them. Again, our firm represented them.”
Mr. Ickes's union connections went with him to Washington. Among them was Arthur Coia, president of the Laborers International Union of North America. “Our firm continues to represent Liuna,” Mr. Ickes said. In the mid-1990s, Mr. Coia and Liuna were the subject of a Justice Department probe for links to organized crime. A draft civil complaint said Mr. Coia has "associated with, and been controlled and influenced by, organized crime figures,” and that he “employed actual and threatened force, violence and fear of physical and economic injury to create a climate of intimidation and fear.”
Liuna gave over $1 million to Democrats in 1994 and congressional investigators documented more than 120 contacts between the president and Mr. Coia, including an exchange of golf clubs. Mrs. Clinton was scheduled to address the union in February 1994, as the Justice Department was about to move on its civil case. She deferred the address for a year.
Mr. Ickes was involved in Mr. Coia's relations with the White House. “As deputy chief of staff, I handled a lot of matters and Arthur was a person I dealt with,” Mr. Ickes said. “I helped set up, and attended, meetings.”
The Justice case was never filed. A settlement for a voluntary clean-up of the union was reached in 1995 and many figures linked to organized crime resigned. Mr. Coia retired early this year, agreeing to plead guilty to one count of tax fraud in exchange for a fine and probation.
At the White House, Mr. Ickes's first major assigment was to run the damage control effort against the Whitewater probe. He was soon a focus of attention himself, summoned in March 1994 to testify before Congress about his knowledge of improper administration contacts concerning the Resolution Trust Corp. probe of Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. That investigation eventually formed the basis of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's successful prosecution of the Clintons' Whitewater business partners, James and Susan McDougal, and Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, for bank fraud.
Mr. Ickes's power appears to have reached a zenith in the 1996 campaign-finance scandal. Federal investigators place him at the center of a conspiracy to shred the campaign-finance laws.
In a 1998 report to Attorney General Janet Reno seeking an independent counsel, Justice Department campaign-finance task force head Charles La Bella identified Mr. Ickes as the “Svengali” of a shrewdly constructed criminal enterprise. The “campaign finance allegations do not represent the typical criminal matter,” Mr. La Bella wrote. “Rather, they present the earmarks of a loose enterprise employing different actors at different levels who share a common goal: bring in the money.”
Each aspect of the sprawling Clinton campaign finance scandal—the White House coffees, illegal Asian money, the Buddhist Temple affair, soft and hard money, Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers, access to the president, payments for “photo opportunities,” flights on Air Force One and Two, participation in trade missions, contacts with unions, membership in various Democratic National Committee forums and related entities—was linked by “certain common themes” and the “conduct of certain figures,” Mr. La Bella reported. He focused on Mr. Ickes, who “assumed the role of Svengali, assuming power—with the imprimatur of the president—to authorize DNC and Clinton/Gore expenditures, award media contracts and direct every aspect of the DNC and Clinton/Gore activities related to the reelection effort.”
Mr. Ickes dismisses the La Bella report. “Mr. La Bella never proved anything,” he said. “I viewed him as an outright partisan with a vendetta against the Clinton administration.”
Despite repeated efforts by Congress, Mr. La Bella, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Louis Freeh and others, Ms. Reno turned down all requests for an independent counsel in the campaign-finance matter. In 1998, Mr. Ickes returned to legal practice, running Meyer, Suozzi's Washington office and a lobbying firm, Ickes & Enright. In January 1999, Ms. Reno declined to appoint an independent counsel to investigate whether Mr. Ickes had lied to Congress about intervening in a strike on behalf of the Teamsters, major contributors to Mr. Clinton. A month later, Mrs. Clinton began her campaign for the Senate.
From the unions to Whitewater and campaign-finance practices, Mr. Ickes's true role, performed brilliantly, has been as consigliere to the dark side of the Clinton presidency. The great question before New York voters is whether the Ickes style, so successful for the Clintons, will be a template for the future of their state.
Mr. Morrison is a senior editorial page writer for
The Wall Street Journal