Union boasts of influence it has on White House

A major transportation union this week publicly boasted of the political influence it wields with the White House, but subsequently apologized to a congressional panel for the remark on Wednesday night.

The brash claim attracted bipartisan criticism as senators called on the union to retract the statement.

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After President Obama nominated United Transportation Union (UTU) General Counsel Daniel Elliot to become a member of the three-person Surface Transportation Board, UTU International President Mike Futhey said in a statement: "The selection by President Obama of Dan Elliot and [former UTU official] Joe Szabo to head major transportation regulatory agencies is tribute to the political influence of the UTU, which flows from the UTU [political action committee (PAC)]. We have good reason to expect President Obama to reach into the UTU ranks for other appointments in the near future."

Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) strongly criticized the UTU during a panel meeting on Wednesday.

Rockefeller called the UTU statement "embarrassing, ridiculous, self-aggrandizing, inappropriate and harmful." Hutchison labeled it "troubling."

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said Elliot "seems to be highly qualified," adding that it was Futhey -- not Elliot -- who made the controversial statement. Isakson called Futhey's comment "totally inappropriate."

The panel approved Elliot's nomination, but Rockefeller and Hutchison indicated they would not move the nomination on the Senate floor until the union apologized. Szabo was confirmed by the Senate earlier this year to head the Federal Railroad Administration.

“There will be a hold on [Elliot] being able to take this position until we get a letter of apology.  If somebody thought they were being cute, they need to go back to K through 12,” said Rockefeller on Wednesday.

Frank Wilner, UTU spokesman, noted that the quote was not a release, and instead a posting to its members. Wilner said the intention was to underscore the workings of the union’s PAC. He said Obama’s nominations of Elliott and Szabo are based on their merits, not the union's political contributions. Wilner also pointed out that Obama did not accept any PAC contributions during his presidential campaign.

In his letter to the Commerce Committee, Futhey stated, "I want to profusely apologize...I deeply regret my comments because it sullied Dan's years of hard work, experience and sense of fairness...It is my sincere hope that my badly chosen words will not derail his confirmation. Again, I apologize to the committee for this inaccurate and inappropriate statement."

The White House did not comment at press time.