Los Angeles Times



September 12, 1995

The Laborers International Union, accused by a presidential commission nine years ago of associating with organized crime, has taken the unique step of trying to reform itself by -- in effect -- hiring the FBI to conduct a thorough housecleaning.

For the last six months, W. Douglas Gow, a retired chief of the FBI's domestic intelligence division, has been working as the union's full-time inspector general, a powerful post that enables him to investigate allegations of corruption against any officers or members and to seek their ouster.

To assist in the task, Gow has hired 40 retired FBI agents as full-time or part-time investigators and auditors, who are spread out across the country.

The union's action, taken after a threatened lawsuit by the Justice Department, comes nearly a decade after the President's Commission on Organized Crime found that "organized crime has a documented relationship with at least 26 locals and three district councils, as well as the international union." The union represents 700,000 mainly low-skilled construction workers.

In a recent interview, Gow called the union's move "unprecedented." Unlike court action that the government took seven years ago against the 1.3-million-member Teamsters Union -- another organization criticized on the same grounds by the presidential commission -- the Justice Department prepared documents against the laborers' union but never filed them in court because the union agreed to a reform mechanism at the last minute.

By contrast, the Teamsters waged a bitter court fight against the 1988 federal racketeering lawsuit in which the Justice Department accused them of being dominated by the Mafia. But the union, the nation's largest, ultimately gave in, agreeing to a court-approved consent decree that called for appointing a panel of outside overseers to launch a three-year effort to rid the Teamsters of what a federal judge termed "the curse of organized crime."

During this period, the Teamster overseers brought about the removal or resignation of more than 150 local or national officers on grounds of financial wrongdoing or past association with criminal elements.

But, beginning with the first direct election of a new national president, the Teamsters in 1992 entered into a new phase of reform. Teamsters President Ron Carey and his associates were put in charge of the reform movement, with the proviso that three independent overseers could look over their shoulders, alter their decisions or goad them into more decisive action.

The laborers' union agreement, however, has embodied self regulation in a way that has never been tried before. The union must file progress reports with the Justice Department every 90 days, and if department officials determine that reforms are too slow, they reserve the right to go to court with an official racketeering complaint.

Laborers' union President Arthur A. Coia, who has been accused of past associations with mob figures in Rhode Island, said: "We are working with the government to implement new measures to bring about a union totally free of corruption."

Coia said he confers daily with Gow and Washington-based attorney Robert Luskin, a former prosecutor who examines charges sought by Gow.

Gow said he has sufficient power to seek the removal of Coia, if that should be warranted, but he declined to say if the union president is among those under investigation. " . . . I will not confirm whether any specific official is being investigated until charges are announced."

Gow, whose 30-year career with the FBI included stints in the field and at bureau headquarters, said he is directing more than 200 union-related investigations, "some involving LCN (La Cosa Nostra) contact and some involving financial wrongdoing."

Seventeen national and local union officers so far have resigned or been suspended pending results of Gow's internal investigations.

"We've only been operational for six months, so I think we've accomplished a lot," he said.

A central element of its agreement with the government has involved the laborers' adoption of a formal ethics and disciplinary code that spells out prohibited conduct by members and officers. The code empowers Gow to institute proceedings against anyone for "knowingly associating with any member or associates of an organized crime family or syndicate," or for committing any act of bribery, extortion, fraud, bookmaking or acceptance of kickbacks.


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