Associated Press

Laborers' Boss Cleared of Mob Ties

By Will Lester
Associated Press Writer

March 9, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The president of the Laborers union, Arthur Coia, was cleared Tuesday by an independent hearing officer of charges he had ties to organized crime but was fined on a separate ethics violation. Hearing officer Peter Vaira, hired by the union with the approval of the Justice Department in a 1995 agreement allowing the union to police itself, made the ruling after an internal investigation of corruption within the Laborers' ranks.

Coia was found liable for violating the union's ethical practices code in purchasing a personal car in a joint arrangement from a dealer who leased cars to the union. Coia was fined $100,000. A lawyer from Providence, R.I., who has been fervent political supporter of President Clinton, Coia became the 350,000-member union's president in 1993 after rising through its staff ranks. With its major strength in the Midwest, the union represents employees in construction, service and public jobs such as digging tunnels, pouring cement and loading mail.

In the 1980s President Reagan's Commission on Organized Crime accused the Laborers of having mob ties. To avoid federal racketeering charges, the union signed the 1995 agreement with the Justice Department to sweep its ranks of corruption. The union's general counsel, Michael Bearse, said Vaira's decision "speaks well of our investigatory and disciplinary process." It was significant that all the allegations of organized crime involvement were dismissed, Bearse said.

Federal officials, however, said they were "disappointed with the decision" but did not criticize the investigation leading up to it. Scott Lassar, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, and James K. Robinson, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, said in a joint statement they "believe the opinion contains serious factual and legal errors."

The charge against Coia was brought by Robert Luskin, a former Justice Department organized crime prosecutor who was hired by the union to head its internal cleanup. Lassar and Robinson said they would discuss Vaira's opinion with lawyers for the union and encourage Luskin to appeal it. The internal union appellate officer is W. Neil Eggleston, a former chief appellate attorney in the U.S. Attorney's office of the Southern District of New York. Vaira was a former federal prosecutor in Pennsylvania.

The Justice Department retained the right under the 1995 agreement to prosecute union officers and seize control of the union if the government is dissatisfied with the internalcleanup. Luskin said he would talk with federal officials about the case and their request that he appeal. But he said he doesn't believe the Tuesday decision would jeopardize the union's arrangement with the federal government to police itself. "What we promised the government was not any particular result, but a fair, credible, aggressive and thorough process," Luskin said. He noted the union has removed about 200 officials and members during the internal sweep.

Coia released a statement noting that the union's investigation has spared no one. "Now my focus is on the future, not on the past," he said. "I remain totally committed to our reform ...." Coia's lawyer, Howard Gutman, said the evidence was convincing that Coia was not involved with organized crime. "The evidence demonstrated overwhelmingly that Coia has never been controlled by the mob, and in fact the mob despises Arthur," Gutman said.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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