Union Democracy Review
May 1999
No. 124

Published by the Association for Union Democracy

by Herman Benson

Serious charges were brought against Arthur A. Coia, international president of the Laborers Union by Inspector General Douglas Gow and vigorously prosecuted by Attorney Robert Luskin. After extensive argument and testimony by a raft of witnesses, Hearing Officer Peter Vaira exonerated Coia, except on a single charge; and on that charge, Coia was hit with a substantial fine, $100,000, but permitted to remain in office. The U.S. Justice Department says it is disappointed with the finding, and it urges Luskin to challenge the verdict in an appeal to the union's Appellate Officer.

To me, most of the charges were puzzling, but the exoneration was equally puzzling. There seems to be some kind of strange mismatch here because the charges rest on one plane while the exoneration exists on another, almost as though Coia was found innocent of accusations that were not brought against him.

Essentially, Luskin charged that in the past Coia was guilty of tolerating organized crime in the union by not acting vigorously against it. A close reading of Vaira's decision, however, indicates that the spirit, or core, of his finding was that Coia had not actively served organized crime and was not its tool, an accusation that was never quite brought against Coia by Luskin, whose main case was based mostly, but not exclusively, not on what Coia did do, but on what he failed to do. (The one charge on which Coia was found guilty and fined was for an act of commission.)

The charges and trial procedure arose out of the 1995 consent agreement between the government and the union under Coia's leadership: In return for the Justice Department's decision not to file a RICO corruption suit against the union, which would have asked a federal judge to remove the whole LIUNA officialdom, the union agreed to a kind of self-policing arrangement to rid itself of organized crime and corruption.

By agreement with the government, Gow, Luskin, Vaira, and Eggleston were appointed to their posts of inspector general, special attorney, hearing officer, and appellate officer.

That agreement has been extended from time to time, with the government reserving the right, whenever it is not satisfied with the clean-up progress, to implement the consent agreement and take over direct control of the union. From the union side, the agreement was supported by Coia, the same now caught in the net he helped create.

The peculiar aspect of the charges is that they are based on actions (mostly upon inactions) of Coia while he was secretary treasurer and the general president of the Laborers, but in the period before the consent agreement and before he had agreed to the current cleanup process.

As a union leader, even in the pre-agreement period, Luskin charged, Coia had the legal and moral obligation to act vigorously against racketeering in the union. Instead, go the charges, he got his job as secretary treasurer with the blessing of the mob; then he tolerated it and maintained suspiciously close personal relations with some organized crime figures.

But he was not charged with being part of the mob, or of being its tool, or even of actively serving its interests.

[Except in one instance where he appointed Frank Serpico, whom he knew was part of the Chicago mob, as chairman of a hearing panel with an annual salary of $100,000. Coia's explanation is, if not a justification, mostly credible, even though the details are cloudy.

Serpico had been the choice of the Chicago mob to become LIUNA president upon the death of President Angelo Fosco in 1989. But Coia outmaneuvered him and got himself chosen.

Then to mollify and neutralize Serpico and reduce his authority, Coia argues, he appointed him to a position where he had no significant union or patronage powers.

The explanation is credible because it squares with a familiar sordid practice in the labor movement of buying off suspect officials.

To get rid of Edward Hanley from the Hotel Union, the government permitted him to retire with a swollen bag of pensions and severance payments. The Service Employees did the same for Gus Bevona in Local 32B/J; AFSCME, for Stanley Hill in DC 37.]

The charge on which Coia was found guilty and fined $100,000 is in a class by itself.

An auto leasing company doing a lucrative business with the union performed complex financial favors for Coia which enabled him to buy a $450,000 luxury antique car and to avoid paying about $80,000 in assorted taxes on the transaction.

Should the penalty have been more severe? Should he have been removed from office? Perhaps. The question should be answered in the context of the larger issues in the union.

But returning to the main issue: Did Coia, tolerate organized crime in the union? Did he fail to act against it? Was he guilty in that earlier period of "appeasement and acquiescence" to the mob?

After reading Luskin's charge, and Coia's defense, and Vaira's not-guilty verdict, and post-hearing comments by Luskin, it seems that Luskin has demonstrated the validity of that charge by overwhelming evidence.

This is not surprising. The construction industry is a cesspool of corruption. It is almost impossible to survive in that world, at any level, without being touched by the corrupt system: by closing ones eyes or remaining silent before the obvious, or by accepting its benefits, or by actively participating in it, or by crushing those who resist it. For anyone to rise to a position as high as Coia's without consciously tolerating that system and working within it, would be impossible.

"If Coia should be removed for appeasing the mob in the days before the consent agreement then the whole leadership of the union, from top to bottom, obviously was guilty of the same offense."

Yes, Luskin's charge was surely justified. Yet, there is something odd here.

The charges relate to the pre-agreement period. In 1995, when the agreement was signed, all the facts were known to the government and served as the basis for its threatened RICO suit. (With the possible exception of the auto deal.)

Yet, Coia was permitted to serve once he agreed to the self-policing program. In fact, Luskin, even while presenting his charges, refers to "the credit he [Coia] richly deserves for fostering the reform process." In its release expressing disappointment with Vaira's finding, the government notes a certain satisfaction with the reform process.

The anomaly is this: If sanctions should be taken against Coia now, even up to his removal, for appeasing the mob in the days before the consent agreement, then the whole leadership of the union, from top to bottom obviously was guilty of that same offense.

None of those in power acted to fight corruption and racketeering. Then the whole leadership is suspect. But since the government knew all that in 1995, the whole basis for the consent agreement, in retrospect, is called into question.

If Coia should be removed for past inaction, then so should the rest of the leadership. If Coia goes, but the rest of the officialdom remains, the one official that embraced reform, for whatever motive, is not likely to be replaced by a more desirable substitute.

It seems to me that if the charges justify his removal, they apply to all the others, so that the only logical response would be, not simply to remove Coia, but to enforce the terms of the consent agreement and take direct control of the union and the reform process.

Vaira, as judge and jury, found Coia not guilty, but not guilty of what?

Luskin argued that Coia, as a high official of the union, had to be held to a strict legal and ethical standard. That he was obligated to take active measures against the mob and should have done so. Vaira evaded that question.

Instead he imposed upon Luskin the burden of proving what he had not really set out to demonstrate. Vaira asked whether Coia had actively associated with organized crime figures and whether he had actively served the interests of the mob.

Luskin argued that Coia had failed to act against the racketeers. Vaira demanded proof that Coia had acted deliberately for the mob. And since Luskin failed to produce such proof by a preponderance of the evidence, Coia was off the hook.

The problem with the charges is that they deal four years belatedly with the derelictions of an even more distant past. The problem with the Vaira verdict is that it gives Coia a clean bill of health for those very failings.

In its press release, the government says rightly that there has been encouraging progress in four years of the consent agreement. The days are gone when an insurgent could be publicly beaten on the convention floor. There is not an absence of fear but substantially less fear.

Members feel freer to run for office. In the last election of national officers, supervised by outside monitors, several incumbents were opposed by insurgents. In a trustworthy referendum members voted to require the direct election of all national officers. But there is a long, long way to go before LIUNA can be considered a safely democratic and decent union.

In the early days of the consent agreement, at least a hundred laborers complained of favoritism and intimidation in the hiring halls.

The model hiring hall rules propounded by the union are excellent on paper but mean nothing in practice.

By this time there have surely been hundreds of hiring hall complaints. Nothing here has changed.

The monitors have never even reported on the outcome of those complaints.

The union's general executive board rejected proposals by the monitors for outside supervision of local elections.

Members complain that Vaira fails to act vigorously to protect their rights in their locals.

The union maintains a district council system which, as in Connecticut, undercuts the right of members of vote on dues increases and contract ratification.

Neither the case against Coia nor the decision exonerating him face up to these issues, so important in the life of any union.

Whether Coia goes or stays, these issues remain and with them the need to strengthen enforcement of the reform mechanism.

In his post-hearing brief, Luskin wrote, "Loud proclamations of bold initiatives, unaccompanied by serious measures, produce only deep cynicism. Thus, when leaders fail to deliver on their promises, the problems they claim to be addressing become even more intractable."

Exactly! But the problem lies not in Coia's past but in the present and future of the reform process.

What's the real story in Laborers' hiring halls?

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