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LIUNA, Justice Department Meet To Decide Future of Federal Supervision

 

By Brian Lockett

Wednesday, October 14, 1998

 

 

Representatives of the Laborers' International Union of North America and the Justice Department met Oct. 6 to assess the union's future after January 1999 when governmental oversight of the union is slated to end, a LIUNA official said Oct. 7.

 

Michael Bearse, LIUNA's general counsel, said this was the first in what he expected to be a series of meetings "to decide what happens next and understand each other on important issues." The next meeting is set for Oct. 21.

 

From LIUNA's standpoint, Bearse said, the union would like to see "more arm's length supervision" from the government. LIUNA has vowed to continue its internal reform program "with or without" federal government oversight, he said, because the union leadership took the position nearly three and one-half years ago that "this was the right thing to do."

 

The innovative oversight agreement negotiated in 1995 by LIUNA and the Justice Department allows the union to institute internal reforms to root out corrupt practices. At any time, Justice has authority to impose a consent decree and appoint officers to take over day-to-day operation of the union if the department concludes that the union is not making adequate progress toward reform and purging itself of the influence of organized crime.

 

The oversight agreement, originally scheduled to expire Feb. 11, 1998, was extended to Jan. 31, 1999, to allow the union to complete investigations and hearings associated with its internal reform program (15 DLR A-3, 1/23/98).

 

According to Bearse, the time has come to assess the union's relationship with Justice, "given the progress that has been made" toward reform. "It may be time to work with Justice in a less intrusive way," he said.

 

Robert D. Luskin, the attorney and in-house prosecutor for LIUNA's general executive board confirmed Oct. 13 that discussions have begun with the Justice Department to reach "some sort of revised successor agreement." Although it is too early to say what form an extension of the agreement will take, he said, regardless of the government's role LIUNA remains committed to reform "as an integral part of the union's structure and culture" and has made "tremendous progress" toward that goal. Luskin added, however, that Justice is not likely to "walk away" at this stage in the reform process because a number of important reform programs have not been completed.

 

According to Luskin, the question underlying the talks is: "How do you meet the government's legitimate interests without infringing on the union's autonomy?"

 

'Remarkable Change.'

 

"There has been a remarkable change" in the union since the oversight agreement took effect 42 months ago, Bearse said. "These problems did not come about overnight," he acknowledged, "but in a relatively short time the major ones have been addressed or there are plans to address them."

 

So far, LIUNA has removed 189 individuals for criminal or ethical violations, or ties to organized crime elements through convictions, terminations, or suspensions, Bearse said. Charges or complaints have been filed against 132 individuals for alleged wrongdoing, including individual members or officers as well as district councils and local unions.

 

Resignations have been tendered by 47 people who were the targets of investigations, Bearse said, and another eight have been suspended pending resolution of criminal charges. LIUNA's internal investigators have referred 25 criminal matters to federal or local law enforcement authorities, he said.

 

All of this has been accomplished at no expense to taxpayers and allowed the union to stay under the democratic control of its members, Bearse said. Rather that rely on the federal government to deal with problems, he said, LIUNA has instituted internal reforms that promote "private initiative and accountability."

 

Among the most high profile actions was the placing in trusteeship of the Mason Tenders District Council in New York City. According to Bearse, the council held its first election of officers since the trusteeship was imposed in 1994. The trusteeship has recovered $12 million of the $15 million in district council assets lost because of malfeasance, he said. Bearse called the reform efforts at the Mason Tenders a "resounding success."

 

LIUNA also imposed trusteeships on its district council in Chicago and Local 210 in Buffalo, N.Y., which the union said in a report to members of Congress "had historically been controlled by organized crime." According to Bearse, "the final chapter has not been written" in LIUNA's attempt to rid Local 210 of corrupt influence. Initially the local was under supervision, he said, but it was decided that trusteeship was required to allow more stringent measures to be taken. A number of members expelled from Local 210 have filed suit in federal court challenging the legality of the disciplinary process, he said.

 

LIUNA has similar plans for "intervention" in other parts of the country, Bearse said, including parts of New York City and New Jersey, which he said are "a five-star priority."

 

One indication that LIUNA still has work to do in completing reform is that it soon will sign new one-year employment contracts with W. Douglas Gow, its inspector general, and his department. The contracts will take effect Jan, 1, 1999, Bearse said. Gow was a former associate deputy director for investigations at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Union members have been able to raise questions or make complaints directly to his office through a toll-free telephone number.

 

Ruling Due on Coia

 

One major piece of unfinished business in the union's reform program is the investigation of LIUNA President Arthur Coia. Closed-door hearings began in April (71 DLR A-8, 4/14/98) and were conducted over three months, exploring allegations that Coia violated the union's ethical practices code. The charges were filed against Coia by GEB attorney Luskin. Coia was represented in the hearings by Brendan Sullivan and Howard Guttman, from the Washington, D.C., law firm of Williams & Connolly.

 

Although details of the charges filed against Coia were not made public, LIUNA said the general charge was that Coia, between 1986 and 1993, "knowingly permitted organized crime members to influence the affairs of LIUNA, breached his constitutional and fiduciary duties to the union, and improperly accepted benefits from a LIUNA service provider." According to the union, because "the most serious allegations concern historical misconduct," the GEB attorney decided not to suspend Coia pending the hearing.

 

The union cited language under its ethics and disciplinary code that an officer or elected official of the union may be suspended before a hearing only when "an emergency exists in which the welfare or preservation of the union is at stake" (216 DLR A-7, 11/7/97).

 

The hearings were conducted before Peter. F. Vaira, LIUNA's independent hearing officer. Under rules established by Vaira, neither the charges nor the hearing was made public. A transcript will be available to union members after the hearing is completed, a decision has been issued, and appeals exhausted. Vaira is a former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and the former executive director of the President's Commission on Organized Crime.

 

Luskin said Oct. 13 that parties are "close to the end of the post-hearing brief process." In the interest of obtaining an expedited IHO decision, Luskin said the parties have agreed to file simultaneous post-hearing briefs and replies.

 

Bearse estimated that an IHO decision may be issued by the end of the year. An appeal is likely to be filed with W. Neil Eggleston, LIUNA's independent appeals officer. Eggleston is a former chief appellate attorney for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.


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