1995 Hillary Rodham Clinton journeyed to Miami Beach's posh Fontainebleau
hotel to address nearly 1000 top officials of the 352,000-member
Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA). The First
Lady posed for photographs with union General President Arthur
A. Coia, a slight, grinning figure among the hefty Laborers. In
his introduction, Coia praised Mrs. Clinton as "one of the
most compassionate Presidential advisers in modern times." For Coia it was the triumph of a long, costly
campaign to win, and now flaunt,, his White House "access."
At that very moment Coia was locked in a
bitter struggle with the U.S. Justice Department, whose racket-busting
prosecutors were seeking to take over his union. They charged
that Coia was "associated with and controlled and influenced
by organized crime," a front man for labor racketeers who
were looting pension and welfare funds.
Now 53, Coia joined the Laborers' Union in
his hometown, Providence, R.I. at age 14. His father was the union's
regional boss and a lifelong friend of New England Mafia godfather
Raymond Patriarca, whose connections assured both Coias' success,
federal investigators say.
By 1980 the elder Coia had become LIUNA's
No.2 official, secretary-treasurer. When he was disabled by a
stroke in 1980, his son, by then LIUNA's New England regional
manager, bid to succeed him
In sealed testimony obtained by Reader's
Digest, Coia, says he was summoned to Chicago, where he was met
by Vince Solano, boss of Laborers Local 1--and a Mafia capo, killer
and enforcer. Solano pounded the table and warned him that the
Chicago Mafia's front man "will be the next general president
of this union." By his silent acceptance, the New Englander
had secured the No.2 job.
Coia contends from that moment on he knew
federal charges of Mafia influence and dominance in his union
were true. In fact, Coia was an integral part of the Mafia-LIUNA
combine much earlier, according to a sworn affidavit by Ron Fino,
a former Mob-controlled LIUNA official who became an FBI informant
and whose testimony has helped convict numerous union racketeers. Fino lives in hiding because
the Mob has ordered him murdered. He swears he and "Coia
Junior" met several times a year during the mid 1980s. Coia
urged Fino to listen to the Mafia bosses "because we are
the future of the Laborers' Union." (Coia admits meeting
with Fino, but denies the allegations.)
Beating and Bombing.
In 1988 the FBI announced a Racketeer Influenced
and Criminal Organization (RICO) investigation of LIUNA. From
informers and wiretaps, Justice Department prosecutors slowly
built a detailed picture of how the crime syndicate had ruled
LIUNA for a generation.
For one, there is LIUNA top-down organizational
structure. Says Alex Corns, a union dissident and business manager
of Local 36 in Daly City, Calif.: "The members have no say
in the actual election process". The national president,
secretary-treasurer, and the General Executive Board composed
of nine regional vice presidents are elected every five years
on a single slate. Any challenger must mount a costly national
campaign. If reformers manage to win control of a local, Coia
can submerge them under a district council dominated by racketeers
and their collaborators.
Criminality in LIUNA ranges from penny-ante
extortion of workers and employers to multimillion dollar piracy
of pension and welfare funds.
Nowhere, prosecutors learned from testimony
of mobsters-turned-witnesses, has the rape of LIUNA's rank and
file been worse than in New York City. The Mafia controlled most
of the New York metropolitan area's construction unions and parceled
out jobs. A prime tool: LIUNA's Mason Tenders District Council
(MTDC), composed of 12 locals representing some 7000 union members
in New York's construction industry.
In 1989 Genovese capo James Massera, the
MTDC's hidden boss, named Frank Lupo to succeed Lupo's father,
a Genovese "soldier" who had run the council for years.
Together, using fraudulent real-estate deals, the two drained
$20 million from the MTDC welfare fund, leaving only $15 million
for Laborers' medical benefits. In 1992 the union had to discontinue
medical payments for half its rank and file, dependents and widows,
and eliminated dental, eye and other care for the rest.
For four years as LIUNA's No. 2, Coia played
his role quietly. Then, in February 1993, the union president
died, and the General Executive Board named Coia to the top job.
Some federal investigators believe the Chicago Mob acquiesced
to his elevation in the belief that he would best shield the Mafia
from the RICO investigation. For the next two years, Coia, these
sources say, did nothing to disrupt Mafia control despite numerous
prosecutions and media exposes of corruption. For example, Coia
abstained from imposing a trusteeship on the MTDC. He told Reader's
Digest he didn't want to interfere with the Justice Department's
investigation. But court documents indicate that Coia ignored
repeated suggestions by Justice to clean up the corrupt council.
Consider Local 435 in Rochester. There, the
FBI and state and local police had convicted 22 gangsters and
so weakened the Mob's grip that reformers were able to seize control
of upstate New York's largest Laborers' local. In 1986, by a two-to-one
margin, the 2000 members elected as their business manager Bob
Brown, a black who began as a union ditch-digger and had built
his own construction business. He soon had over $1 million in
his union treasury and bargained 130 union contracts. He also
built the pension fund to more than
$150 million-- a pot of gold that drove the Mafia pirates crazy.
In 1992 LIUNA imposed a new district council
dominated by the Mob-owned Buffalo local and appointed its officers.
Brown and other rebels in the region repeatedly demanded an election,
but for two years none was held. So Brown ignored the council's
orders and continued negotiating his own contracts.
On April 7, 1997, Coia sent some 15 LIUNA
"reps" into the Local 435 office. They changed the locks
and denied Brown access. Brown went to court. Federal Judge Michael
A. Telesca declared LIUNA's action a "clear violation"
of its own constitution. He required Coia to hold an election
in September 1994 for the new district council. Rather than face
a vote, Coia disbanded the council.
White House Invitations.
Meanwhile, Coia worked furiously to build
a political alliance with the new Clinton Administration. Even
before the President took office, LIUNA made a $100,000 loan to
his inauguration committee. Coia was the only major union president
to defy the AFL-CIO and support Clinton in the bitter 1993 fight
for ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Coia
spoke or wrote on several occasions to Mrs. Clinton about her
proposed health-care reforms. His union political-action committee,
the Laborers' Political League, contributed $1.2 million in the
1993-94 election cycle to federal candidates, overwhelmingly Democrats,
and in June 1994 Coia co-hosted a $1500-a-plate Democratic National
Committee dinner that raised $3.5 million. Contributors who gave
$10,000 or more were invited to a White House reception.
For Coia, White House invitations came regularly:
to share breakfast with the First Lady; attend a reception for
the Emperor of Japan; see the pope in Denver; fly with Clinton
on Air Force One to Haiti. In October 1994 Coia and his wife were
guests at a glittering White House dinner at which the President
entertained guests with his saxophone. Mrs. Coia was named to
the committee to select the site for the 1996 Democratic National
The President even invited Coia along on
a campaign trip to Rhode Island, and Coia had a local craftsman
present Clinton a handmade golf club with the Presidential seal
in the head. The President reciprocated by giving Coia an expensive
Calloway Divine Nine club.
On November 4, 1994, Clinton penned a personal
note: "Dear Arthur, I just heard you've become a grandfather
Congratulations! Thanks for the gorgeous
driver--it's a work of art. Best, Bill."
That same Friday afternoon, Justice Department
racket-busters wrapped up the 212-page draft of their RICO civil
suit. They delivered it to Coia's marble-arched LIUNA building
two blocks from the White House.
The draft complaint charged that Coia and
his co-conspirators "employed actual and threatened force,
violence and fear of physical and economic injury to create a
climate of intimidation and fear." They were accused of "systematic
abuse" of Laborers' rights. Members were "intimidated
into silence by violence, threats of violence economic coercion,
and by the known ties of local and international union officials
with organized crime." (Coia denies the allegations.)
Within days after the draft was delivered,
Prisident Clinton sent two more personal letters to Coia. One
"Dear Arthur" note signed "Bill" thanked Coia
for his support of Democractic candidates, and another promised
to share Coia's views on labor with Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
To counter the suit, Coia and the LIUNA Genereal
Executive Board hired high-priced Washington defense lawyers.
On November 16 one of them met with the Justice Department's Organized
Crime and Racketeering Section chief Paul Coffey, a 26-year veteran.
He told the lawyer, "Coia has to go. Everything else is on
Weeks of negotiation followed. Each time
the two sides deadlocked, LIUNA's lawyerws appealed to Clinton
appointee Jo Ann Harris, assistant attorney general for the Criminal
Division. Taut debates within the Justice Department ensued. The
demand for Coia's removal was dropped.
Along the way, in the face of the devastating
evidence spelled out in the Justice Department complaint, Coia
and LIUNA's Executive Board began a public show of cleaning house.
They temporarily suspended the Chicago and New York regional vice
presidents, whose Mafia connections had been documented by the
government. (Both men later left the union voluntarily and deny
any Mob connection.) Coia announced that the union was creating
the posts of "inspector general" and union prosecutor,
and hired a retired FBI asssistant director and a former member
of the Justice Department's organized crime section.
LIUNA's defense team adopted a strategy of
delay. The union yielded as little to the Justice Department as
possible, appealing over the heads of career prosecutors to the
President's political appointees--and protecting Coia vigorously.
In February 1995, as Hillary Rodham Clinton
was scheduled to address the Miami Beach LIUNA conference, Justice
Department and White House lawyers debated whether she should
go. A compromise was reached: Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes
told the First Lady that Coia was under investigation and that she should avoid any private conversation
A week later the Justice Department announced
an unprecedented agreement with LIUNA that preserved Coia's presidency.
The union would be given an opportunity to clean its own house
and install democratic election procedures in return for signing
a consent decree allowing Justice to do so if LIUNA failed.
For the next seven months, LIUNA presented
skimpy evidence of house-cleaning. Coia's lawyers rejected demands
for direct election of all top officers. An angry union dissident,
business manager Gene Johnson of the Central Illinois Laborers'
District Council, wrote President Clinton on September 19: "
We do not want you to succumb to the false words and enticements
of Arthur Coia. We encourage you to avoid even the slightest appearance
of intimacy. Coia cannot deliver the votes of Laborers because
he does not have their respect or trust."
In late September Acting Assistant Attorney
General John Keeney, a career government lawyer, called Coia's
lawyers in and delivered an ultimatum: give members the right
to elect their officers, or we'll take over. Coia lawyer Brendan
V. Sullivan, Jr., responded, " The decision to implement
the consent decree will be made by the Assistant Attorney General"
an appointee still to be named by the president.
Despite warnings from career racket-busters
that giving in would raise suspicions of White House influence,
the Justice Department agreed to a compromise: a rank-and-file
ballot at least for president and secretary-treasurer, the two
top national officers, in December 1996. Close observers predict
that no rank-and-filer will be able to mount a national campaign
to defeat Coia, whose friendship with the Clintons is seen as
having boosted LIUNA's political clout.
Meanwhile, the LIUNA General Executive Board's
new attorney has moved to place the 1300-member Buffalo Local
210 under trusteeship, listing 34 Mafia members and associates
who have for the past 25 years "run the local for the benefit
of La Cosa Nostra, rather that for the benefit of the members."
(The case has not been decided.)
The White House has refused to answer questions
from Reader's Digest about the President's knowledge of LIUNA's
Mafia connections or the Justice Department investigation and
negotiations. Has the Clintons' coziness with Coia dampened the
Justice Department's drive to clean up this crooked union? In
a court hearing regarding the unusual Justice Department-LIUNA
agreement, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan asked,
"Here's a man, the president of the union, who's accused
of being associated with organized crime. Why wasn't Coia removed?
It's a question thousands of honest Laborers