BY MICHAEL ISIKOFF
AND DANIEL KLAIDMAN
Arthur A. Coia has been very good to the
Democrats. His union, the Laborers' International, has given more
than $3 million to the party since 1991. At a private meeting
in the Oval Office in 1994, the president gave Coia, an avid golfer,
one of Clinton's personal clubs, a nine-iron. Last week Coia was
vice chairman of a black-tie gala that netted the Democrats $12
million for the fall. The union boss sat at the same table with
star attractions Robin Williams and Stevie Wonder.
Coia, who presides over 750,000 mostly low-wage
construction and waste-removal workers, fancies himself a labor
statesman; the presidential nine-iron is proudly displayed in
a glass case at union headquarters in Washington. But Coia, who
has also publicly hobnobbed with Hillary Clinton, is turning into
a convenient target for Republicans searching for Democratic bogeymen.
The union Coia runs is infamous for its suspected
mob ties. Two years ago, as first reported in the Providence (R
I.) Journal-Bulletin, federal prosecutors presented the Laborers'
International with a draft 212-page complaint that read like a
who's who of racketeering. The draft detailed how mobsters like
Carmine (The Snake) Persico, (Trigger Mike) Coppola and Anthony
(Fat Tony) Salerno had allegedly conspired to loot millions out
of the union. And it named Coia as the latest union president
"to have been associated with, and controlled and influenced
Coia fought back by hiring Williams &
Connolly, the same law firm that represents the Clintons in Whitewater.
His lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, cut a deal with the Feds: Coia could
remain if the union rid itself of any mob connections. His latest
problem: a House GOP strategy memo raises the Coia case and calls
for hearings into a "Clinton cover-up of union mob ties."
In fact, there is no evidence that the Clintons
intervened to protect Coia or that " Coia's donations are
in any way illegal. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Coia himself
was all wounded innocence, declaring, "This is like a sword
right in my heart." Yes, he said he had a "concern"
about some of his colleagues, but suspicions were not proof. Rising
from a chair, he wiped his hands and insisted, "Give us a
Prosecutors and FBI investigators say that
Coia has had more than mere suspicions about the mob. His father
and predecessor as a top union leader, Arthur E Coia, was close
to Raymond Patriarca, the legendary boss of the New England Mafia.
According to an FBI informant, Coia Sr. once described Patriarca
as a "saint." Coia Jr. says be never met Patriarca
but be does allow that he tried to breed champion showdogs with
Patriarca's son, Raymond Jr. (The dogs, Rottweilers,' failed to
mate.) Patriarca Sr. and both Coias were indicted in 1981 for
allegedly taking kickbacks, but the case was dismissed because
the statute of limitations had run out.
In 1989, when Coia wanted to succeed his
ailing father as the union's secretary-treasurer, he was summoned
to Chicago to meet with a local union leader named John Serpico.
Testifying under oath, Coia himself later described the scene
to investigators: in coffee shop at O'Hare airport, Serpico presented
Coia to reputed mob capo Vincent Solano. Solano asked after Coia's
father. Then,, pounding the table with one hand, he pointed to
Serpico and declared, "We're grooming that man there to be
the next general president" of the union.
But Coia, not Serpico, eventually became
the Laborers' boss. In 1995, with the Feds bearing down, Coia
drove Serpico out. Some Justice officials say Coia is starting
to clean up the union, but others worry the deal may be a sham
to keep Coia in power. Federal officials deny there was any political
pressure to go easy on Coia.
Still the administration has long been ambivalent
about its potentially embarrassing friend. When Mrs. Clinton traveled
to Miami last year to speak to the Laborers' International, she
was warned not to meet privately with Coia. It was necessary to
"protect the First Lady," aide Harold Ickes told the
then White House counsel Abner Mikva. That same year, however,
the First Family was happy to accept the union boss's $$1,000
personal check- made out to the Clintons' legal defense fund