Bureau of National Affairs

Laborers Appellate Officer Clears LIUNA's Coia Of Internal Organized Crime Charges

August 10, 1999

In an opinion released Aug. 9, Arthur A. Coia, president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, was cleared of internal disciplinary charges that he permitted organized crime to influence the union.

Appellate Officer W. Neil Eggleston affirmed all portions of the independent hearing officer's decision that were appealed by Robert D. Luskin, the union's general executive board attorney and in-house prosecutor.

Eggleston, who has served as the union's appellate officer since March 1995, is a former assistant U. S. Attorney and chief of the appellate section for the Southern District of New York. He is a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Howrey & Simon.

The charges against Coia were the result of 22 days of hearings over three months last spring that produced 5,500 pages of testimony from 19 witnesses and more than 500 exhibits. The charges were referred to Peter Vaira, LIUNA's independent hearing officer, for an opinion.

The Coia investigation was undertaken as part of an unusual consent decree negotiated in 1995 by LIUNA and the Justice Department that allows the union to root out corrupt practices through internal reforms. The Justice Department has threatened to file an already prepared 212-page civil complaint under the federal racketeering statute and take over the union if the union fails to achieve significant reform on its own.

Independent Hearing Officer's Ruling

Vaira cleared Coia March 8 of multiple charges of association with organized crime figures filed against him under the union's ethical practices code, but upheld a conflict of interest charge resulting from the purchase of an expensive sports car from an auto dealer in Providence, R.I., which also was a union vendor. Coia was fined $100,000, payable over two years, for "direct conflict of interest."

Vaira dismissed a charge involving tax issues, saying he lacked expertise in that area, and said the remaining charges alleging improper association with organized crime figures were not proved by a preponderance of evidence.

Luskin appealed, focusing on disciplinary charges associated with former union officials John Serpico and Ron Fino. Serpico, once a LIUNA vice president, was removed from the union in January 1995 when he refused to endorse the union's new ethical practices code. Fino was a former official with Laborers Local 210 in Buffalo, N.Y. (57 DLR A-2, 3/25/99).

Vaira found that Coia had not breached his fiduciary duties by appointing Serpico as chairman of LIUNA's hearings panel or by investigating Fino's allegations of La Cosa Nostra influence within LIUNA (46 DLR AA-1, E-1, 3/10/99).

Vaira found that Coia acted reasonably to diminish Serpico's influence in the union. The GEB attorney argued on appeal that Coia had the alternative under the union's constitution of prosecuting Serpico more vigorously.

'Applicable Standards of Conduct.'

Eggleston said the question was not whether the GEB attorney's interpretation was correct but whether Coia's failure to adopt that interpretation was "so egregious a violation as not only to support, but to require, the imposition of discipline." According to Eggleston, while this alternative may have been open to Coia, "his failure to perceive it and to blaze a new trail cannot plausibly be said to have represented such an egregious departure from the applicable standards of conduct as to require the imposition of discipline."

Eggleston added that he did not believe the course of action advocated by the GEB attorney "was so clearly superior to the path Mr. Coia took as to be constitutionally required." Coia's actions "were intended to, and did, have the effect of curtailing Mr. Serpico's influence within the union," Eggleston said, affirming the IHO's decision that they provided no basis for discipline.

With regard to claims on appeal that Coia did not play an active enough role in the internal investigation of Fino, Eggleston found that it was a "permissible course of action" under the circumstances for Coia "to allow impartial investigators to do the job for which they had been hired."

According to Eggleston: "To the extent that an investigator needs information from an officer, that information must, of course, be forthcoming. But this is a far different principle than the one for which the GEB attorney here contends: that Mr. Coia's failure to direct [the investigating attorney's] investigation was so wrongful as not only to support, but to compel, the imposition of discipline."

Coia's Reaction

Coia said Aug. 9, "Having spent years fighting false allegations of mob ties, I look forward to continuing the work of our great union and to continuing the partnership we have worked hard to forge with the government over the past four and a half years. I hope that the time for peace for me, my family, and my union has finally come."

Asked about his reaction to the appellate officer's ruling, Luskin said Aug. 9, "I think we were afforded a full opportunity to present evidence relevant to the charges and a fair opportunity to be heard."

Copyright © 1999 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc., Washington D.C.

Provided as a public service to LIUNA members by Laborers for JUSTICE

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