Firefighters’ Union, a Key Biden Ally, Confronts a Barr Investigation and Trump’s Pardon Power

IAFF's president and his second-in-command are caught in a high-stakes brawl ahead of union elections and the race for the White House.

Harold Schaitberger, chairman of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), speaks during IAFF Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2019.
Harold Schaitberger, general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters, speaks during the IAFF Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 12, 2019. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In August 2016, Ed Kelly, a young rising star in the Massachusetts labor movement, won his bid to become General Secretary-Treasurer of the International Association of Fire Fighters, or IAFF: the union representing 320,000 firefighters and paramedics across the U.S and Canada. The position is the second most powerful in the union, behind the presidency, which has been held for the last two decades by 74-year-old Harold Schaitberger, a close ally of Joe Biden.

Soon after, Kelly tapped combat veteran Mathew Golsteyn to serve as his chief of operations. The low-key hire came at the recommendation of Kelly’s brother, Greg, who had overlapped in Afghanistan with Golsteyn. But Golsteyn was not just any Green Beret: He had earned a spate of shocking headlines just a year earlier for alleged war crimes, for which he was ultimately pardoned by President Donald Trump in November 2019. In the month following the pardon, Golsteyn joined Trump onstage at a secretive fundraiser for the Florida Republican Party, helping them net $3.5 million in donations.

In 2015, Golsteyn had been stripped of a Silver Star after disclosing in a CIA polygraph interview that he had shot and buried an unarmed Taliban fighter he thought was a bombmaker, and later dug up the remains and burned them in a pit. The revelations roiled the CIA, which quickly notified the Pentagon, sparking a two-year investigation in which the U.S Army concluded in 2013 that Golsteyn had knowingly violated the laws of war. While investigators did not find enough evidence to bring criminal charges, in an internal Army memo previously reported by The Intercept, Golsteyn was reprimanded for a “complete lack of judgement and responsibility” and told he had “discredited” himself and the U.S military.

But in October 2016, just a month after joining the firefighters union, Golsteyn was asked on Fox News if he killed the suspected bombmaker, to which he replied, “Yes.” This new public admission sparked army investigators to quickly reopen their investigation, and two years later charged Golsteyn with murder.

The new probe and criminal charges became a cause célèbre among conservatives, who rushed to Golsteyn’s defense. Golsteyn’s lawyer called the murder charge a case of “political correctness” and following an interview with Golsteyn’s wife in December 2018 on the president’s favorite news program “Fox & Friends,” Trump got involved.

Throughout all of this, Kelly offered unwavering support on social media for his chief of operations and helped fundraise for Golsteyn’s legal defense.

Meanwhile, ahead of what is often described as the most important presidential election in generations, a series of escalating disputes among IAFF leadership have increasingly spilled over into public view. Schaitberger, a key Biden ally, is locked in bitter in-fighting, grappling with leaks to right wing media, and confronting a federal investigation from a Justice Department that’s been unabashed in its willingness to use federal power for the president’s political gain. It comes as Biden is fighting Trump for votes among elderly and white working-class voters, where the firefighters union is a key validator, so much so that Trump has worked hard to undermine the value of the endorsement.

Things heated up earlier this year when Kelly accused Schaitberger of financial impropriety. Schaitberger has been blasted for lavish spending before, but the crux of the new allegations hinged on whether Schaitberger received pension benefits too early; prior to being elected IAFF president in 2000, he served as an IAFF union staffer for 24 years. The elected position and the staff position earn pension benefits from two separate funds, and Kelly charges that Schaitberger drew from his staff pension benefits too soon, in violation of federal law and union rules. The IAFF has pointed to legal counsel it received at the time of Schaitberger’s transition, and maintains they have done nothing wrong. Earlier this month federal authorities launched a criminal probe into the accusations, while the union’s executive board has launched an internal review.

Conservative media outlets have followed along, with the Washington Free Beacon and the Wall Street Journal publishing updates based on leaked union records and board discussions, including a lengthy memo about Kelly’s financial audit. They have framed their stories heavily around Schaitberger’s close relationship with Biden. (When Biden announced his candidacy for the White House in April 2019, the IAFF endorsed him almost immediately, long before any other union.) “Union Probe Finds Close Biden Ally Misappropriated Millions” read the first Free Beacon headline from March. “Firefighters Union Chief With Ties to Democratic Leaders Is Mired in Internal Financial Dispute” read the first WSJ story.

Schaitberger is up for reelection in January and is currently running unopposed, though Kelly is long rumored to want his job, according to members of the union. One IAFF leader from the Midwest, who spoke to The Intercept under the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said they were personally asked by Kelly earlier this year if they would support him in a bid for president.

Kelly, who was pushed by a fellow union member to answer for his own use of funds earlier this week, declined to comment for this story and referred all questions to attorneys at Wiley Rein LLP, the law firm representing the IAFF in the federal investigation. Wiley Rein attorney Robert Walker declined to comment, and Golsteyn did not return multiple requests for comment.

Brian Rice, the president of the California Professional Firefighters, told The Intercept he thought the leaks to the press violate Schaitberger’s entitlement to a fair process, and to him, “it’s nothing more than a veiled coup, a power struggle, aimed at IAFF leadership.”

In June, Rice joined three other state IAFF presidents — Bobby Lee of the Hawaii Fire Fighters Association, Robert Sanchez of the New Mexico Professional Fire Fighters Association, and Bryan Jeffries of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona — in writing a statement that their union’s democratic process was disrespected by leaks of “selective” and “incomplete” details to the “historically anti-union” news outlet — referring to the Wall Street Journal — instead of waiting for the union’s review of Kelly’s allegations to finish. “The IAFF’s reputation and power, which took over a century to build, is now at risk of being tarnished by the careless and selfish act of a few,” they wrote.

The Wall Street Journal reported in June that “union records” showed Schaitberger used a company credit card to download content from iTunes in 2017 and 2018. Only individuals at the level of General Secretary-Treasurer have access to those types of records, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the union’s expense reporting system. The outlet also reported on communications among the executive board, a body that includes 16 district vice presidents, Schaitberger, and Kelly.

Past reporting has also relied heavily on longtime critics of Schaitberger, including Frank Ricci, a former firefighter union president from New Haven who now works as a strategist for a conservative think tank, and Eric Lamar, a former Schaitberger aide who now maintains a blog that is sharply critical of his old boss and IAFF leadership. Ricci, a supporter of Trump, told the Free Beacon in March he “stand[s] in full support” of Kelly, who provided “official documents and a cogent argument that support his accusations.”

In a statement to the Wall Street Journal following the announcement of the federal probe, the IAFF said it would cooperate with the investigation and that “this action is part of a continued assault by a handful of individuals trying to tear down the organization for their own self-interest and personal retribution.”

Jeffries, of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, told The Intercept that he and many of his colleagues were not just concerned by the specifics of the accusations, which he said “seem to be blatantly false” — but the timing of them.

“Not only is this happening in an election year for [IAFF] president and secretary-treasurer, it’s also happening in the election year for the president of the United States,” he said. “I can’t prove anything that there are connections but it sure feels like there are some very right-leaning elements within our union who are trying to dismantle the unbelievable vision and work of Harold Schaitberger when all he and IAFF have done has put wins in the win column.”

The union declined to make Schaitberger available for an interview but in an emailed statement provided to The Intercept, the IAFF said it was cooperating with the requests for documents associated with the organization’s staff pension plan, “strongly reaffirms that it did not engage in any wrongdoing [and] we look forward to a swift resolution of the reviews being conducted.”

Trump has made no secret of his ire toward the firefighters union for endorsing Biden, tweeting after the endorsement that he’s “done more for Firefighters than this dues sucking union will ever do” and that the membership of the union actually supported him. Because of that, as well as U.S Attorney General William Barr’s track record of using the federal law enforcement agency to go after the president’s enemies, some, including former Justice Department spokesperson Matthew Miller, have speculated that the federal probe may be politically motivated. The Department of Justice did not return a request for comment.

The launch of a federal investigation followed a written request sent to the FBI by Lamar, who wrote that the union’s leadership “have engaged in an ongoing pattern of defrauding the members while enriching themselves.”

On Tuesday, the day after The Intercept asked Lamar what he makes of those who say his blog posts in support of Kelly’s accusations may be politically driven, Lamar published a new post distancing himself from Kelly, blasting the General Secretary-Treasurer for submitting a $43,000 expense voucher that was late and without proper documentation. In the post, Lamar called Kelly’s action “some mix of immature, unprofessional and reckless.” In a video response published later that day, Kelly apologized for his behavior, pledged to post the receipts in question online, and said his team has “been overwhelmed trying to expose the finances of the IAFF.”

Buried within the new business expense disclosures Kelly published this week existed one notable charge from December 11, 2019: a $74 lunch expense at Old Ebbitt Grill in Washington, D.C., listed for him, Golsteyn, and Clint Lorance, another U.S Army soldier pardoned for war crimes by Trump. Lorance was convicted of murdering two Afghan men in 2012, and both Lorance and Golsteyn had appeared at the Florida Republican Party fundraiser with the president four days earlier.

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