Laborers-LIUNA General Counsel Michael Bearse Defends Arthur Coia

LETTERS (3/6/2000)

 

Coia Deserves Better

 

Your editorial, "When Workers Deserve Better," is a gratuitous shot at Laborers' General President Emeritus Arthur A. Coia and the more than 800,000 hardworking members of the Laborers' Union (ENR 2/7 p. 60). Whatever your editorial opinions may be, you should at least make an effort to be fair and get the facts straight.

 

Your editorial says that allegations of corruption and organized crime ties against Mr. Coia never "got to the point where they had to be proven." As ENR is fully aware and has itself reported, this is flat out wrong. Mr. Coia was charged under LIUNA's innovative internal disciplinary code—a system which is overseen by independent officers and which the Dept. of Justice has recognized as effective—with serious allegations of ties to organized crime. After years of investigations and an exhaustive three-month internal hearing in which 19 witnesses produced nearly a thousand pages of testimony and more than 700 exhibits were introduced, Mr. Coia was irrevocably and undisputedly cleared of all those charges. Furthermore, the "emeritus position" provides Mr. Coia only with the difference between his pension and his former salary as general president.

 

The only thing correct about your statement that Mr. Coia's car was "paid for by the dues of the hard-working members of his union," is that LIUNA members are hard working. This was a personal purchase by Mr. Coia and not financed by the union in any way. Your comments are ludicrous and insulting to Mr. Coia, a successful Rhode Island attorney before becoming LIUNA's general president, as well as to our union's hard-working members.

 

We are even more outraged and appalled, given the full and complete access to information our union and Mr. Coia have always provided your publication and reporters. Surely he and the members of LIUNA deserve better. michael bearse

 

MICHAEL BEARSE

LIUNA General Counsel

Washington, D.C.

 

 

In these times of union bashing, dirty politics and sensationalist journalism, we have come to expect and even accept that certain publications will ignore the facts and the "real" story in order to attack a labor leader and pursue a riveting headline or some transparent and transient political advantage. When ENR undertakes such actions, as in its recent editorial about Arthur Coia, every American worker suffers.

 

The text of your editorial began accurately enough, reporting Arthur Coia's leadership toward "new unionism, where labor could act as management's partner, rather than its opponent" and stating that "he can rightly boast of establishing the position of laborer as an apprenticeable trade." Then, instead of also reporting Mr. Coia's exoneration of any mob ties or union corruption, and his leadership in the historic and successful cleanup of the laborers, the piece descended to the same tired and well disproven old stories about corruption. The editorial then reached a new low by stating that the dues of union members paid for expensive cars that were actually bought with money earned by a successful lawyer who left active law practice to help the union he loved.

 

As the Dept. of Justice eventually learned and has admitted, the truth is that Arthur Coia gave up a lucrative law practice and took control of LIUNA away from corrupt elements within the union. While undertaking groundbreaking work in organizing, labor-management relations, and health and safety, Mr. Coia forged a new kind of partnership with government in order to clean up the union. In ending its informal oversight recently, the Dept. of Justice pronounced the cleanup a success.

 

To demonstrate that the allegations of "going soft" were false, the Dept. of Justice investigated Mr. Coia with unprecedented determination. They convened five grand juries, sat in on seven depositions, and expended resources usually seen only in Independent Counsel investigations.

 

When all the grand juries, union hearings and depositions were complete, with massive sums having been spent investigating every aspect of Mr Coia's life, the Justice Dept. found no wrongdoing—at least no wrongdoing that the federal government had ever prosecuted against anyone. And no wrongdoing that even the State of Rhode Island had ever prosecuted.

 

Like 300,000 people in Massachusetts who fraudulently register their cars at post office boxes in New Hampshire to avoid all state and town car taxes, and tens of thousands of people in Rhode Island who do likewise, Mr. Coia had evaded state and local car taxes. Until the case of Arthur Coia, no citizen had ever been prosecuted for such conduct.

 

Mr. Coia admitted his guilt of avoiding certain taxes on cars—conduct the judge who heard him plead guilty called "minor"—and has paid restitution. But if he was not a "controversial" labor leader, he, like the hundreds of thousands of others who avoid such car taxes, would never have been subject to prosecution.

 

The "million-dollar car" was acquired in a trade for a car purchased by Mr. Coia in the early 1980s as an investment for what any luxury car would cost today. The car's value then shot up to be worth over a million dollars and was traded for another. Where were the "union dues?" Nowhere. To suggest otherwise was to malign Mr. Coia's dedication to the laborers' union with a kind of foolish malice that was breathtaking to behold.

HOWARD W. GUTMAN

Williams & Connolly LLP

Washington, D.C.

 

 


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