One month ago, Arthur A. Coia announced his
retirement as president of the Laborers International Union of
North America. This well-connected union boss, who has been an
intimate of both President and Hillary Clinton, soon is expected
to plead guilty to federal tax fraud charges. How and why the
Department of Justice decided to limit its case to such a relatively
narrow scope remains worthy of an investigation unto itself.
Mr. Coia, now 56, is something of a legend
around Washington. While the FBI was alleging that he was "associated
with and controlled by organized crime," and writers such
as investigative reporter Eugene Methvin were calling him "a
front man for labor racketeers who were looting pension and welfare
funds," Coia was in full Bill-and-Hill hobnob:
- There was Hillary, five years ago this
month, addressing Coia's union (one of this nation's largest for
representing the building trades) in Miami Beach. She was fully
aware of the federal probe; her speechwriter sent her a memo noting,
"They're the mob."
- There was Bill, three months earlier, sending
Art a warm note on becoming a grandfather the same day the Justice
Department hand-delivered to the White House a draft of a civil
racketeering lawsuit that it intended to file if Coia didn't quit.
- Prior to that, Coia had lent $100,000 to
the president's inaugural committee. He'd also raised nearly $5
million for Democrat candidates and causes. Art became a regular
dinner partner (state affairs included) and travel companion of
the Clintons. He and the president traded pricey golf clubs.
A funny thing happened over the next few
years. The Justice Department seemed to cave in ... to something
. It gave the union a chance to clean up its own house, a most
unusual move. Coia remained in power. Congress investigated the
case in 1997, unearthing 120 notes between the Clinton White House
and Coia. They show a clear cognizance of the alleged mob ties.
Coia claimed to have removed any influence
of organized crime in the union's sweetheart deal with the government
to cleanse itself. But by November 1998, The Washington Post reported,
an independent union prosecutor alleged Coia had "knowingly
permitted organized crime members" to influence Laborers
In another unusual move, an independent union
hearing officer cleared Coia of any mob ties last March.
Coia said he retired to spend more time with
his family and that he was tired of being hounded by prosecutors.
The reality is, he cut a deal. Coia will plead guilty for failing
to pay about $100,000 in taxes on the purchase of three Ferraris.
And what a deal it is: Coia becomes president emeritus, a powerless
position but one with the same salary as president, $250,000 a
Though serious enough, the tax fraud charges
are a far cry from what federal investigators and prosecutors
first targeted Coia.
But what really happened here? Did Arthur
A. Coia get some kind of presidential dispensation? Why did the
Justice Department effectively back off? Why didn't the Congress
peel back this onion further?
The Coia case represents unfinished business. Coia's plea can't be allowed to represent the end of this matter. In fact, it should be considered a good place to start anew.