Top Biden Labor Ally Drops Reelection Bid Amid Federal Probe

Schaitberger to exit firefighters' union in January as spending investigation continues

International Association of Firefighters General President Harold Schaitberger (C) embraces Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign event / Getty Images
September 29, 2020

One of Joe Biden's closest labor allies dropped his reelection bid as union president amid a federal probe into allegations that he illegally siphoned more than $1 million from the union treasury.

Harold Schaitberger, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, announced his decision to forgo reelection in an email sent Tuesday morning to union members, putting an end to his 20-year tenure as the top honcho of a labor group that represents more than 300,000 members. He will step down from office after the union's January election.

"After dedicating almost 50 years of my life to this wonderful union, I have decided not to run for re-election as your General President," Schaitberger wrote in the email. "This IAFF is too important. I cannot stand by and allow our union to become even more divided."

Schaitberger's fall from grace started in March, when an internal probe led by the union's second-in-command Ed Kelly found that he misappropriated millions of dollars from the union pension fund. The internal probe, which the Washington Free Beacon first reported on, alleged that roughly $6 million in union funds had disappeared during Schaitberger's tenure. The FBI launched its own corruption probe into the union in September, causing many dues-paying firefighters to lose faith in the organization.

The union leader's exit is a major loss for the Biden campaign, which counted the Schaitberger-led IAFF as one of its most loyal labor allies. The union endorsed Biden on the day of his campaign launch, the first major national union to back the former vice president. The union also donated $5,000 to the Biden campaign and spent nearly $75,000 in outside spending to support him in 2019, throwing a critical lifeline to a campaign that faced persistent challenges from the progressive left. Schaitberger, for his part, has attempted to beat back pro-Trump elements in the union and pledged to "do everything in my power to help Joe Biden become the next president."

His exit may dampen the union's support for Biden, especially since many rank-and-file members objected to the endorsement. IAFF Local 22, which represents more than 4,700 emergency responders in Philadelphia, endorsed President Donald Trump hours after Schaitberger sent his email to the union membership. Kelly, the union's number two and a top candidate to replace Schaitberger, employs a top staffer who is aligned with Trump and fundraised for the Republican Party.

Daniel Coughlin, an IAFF firefighter in New Haven, Connecticut, said many rank-and-file union members have always supported the president even if the national union does not.

"Unions, especially the IAFF, have been neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party, but there's a lot of blue collar regular guys and girls who are pro-Trump," he said.

Schaitberger denied the corruption allegations against him in the email. Instead, he maintained that he has wrongly been made the "stalking horse of much of the false information, division, anger and rancor" that have caused division in the union. "The innuendo, baseless allegations and misleading accusations. There's no accountability and, that, in my view, has harmed our great union," he said.

Coughlin said the announcement did not come as a surprise to most of the rank-and-file members since they did not see how the union president could survive the scandal. He hoped Schaitberger's resignation would pave the way for a more accountable union leadership that could restore trust.

"I don't think it's unexpected—something had to be done. I couldn't see him surviving this, one way or another," he said. "I think [Schaitberger's exit] might give the men and women of the international a little hope that someone is out there looking out for them after all."

Frank Ricci, a senior strategist for the Yankee Institute and former IAFF local president, said the union, as well as federal investigators, should continue to scrutinize Schaitberger's financial dealings. He criticized national union executives for fostering a culture of corruption.

"It is clear President Schaitberger’s and his cronies' personal greed, scandals, and schemes has fractured the IAFF’s influence," Ricci said. "Schaitberger ending his failed reelection campaign should not close the door to wider FBI investigations. There are other rats that were complicit in his actions that need to be smoked out."

The union did not respond to a request for comment.