Union probe renews interest in Coia's ties to Clinton

Providence Journal 10.26.97 00:18:30

Reports that the Laborers' Union will bring internal charges against its general president, Arthur A. Coia, focuses attention on the Rhode Islander's campaign-finance dealings with President Clinton.


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- On the evening of April 26, 1995, a White House aide wrote a memo for Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes that began, ``Harold asked for this info earlier and said it was urgent.''

The memo details an anti-corruption pact the Laborers' Union reached with the Justice Department in 1995. Then it ticks off donations from the union to the Democratic Party --for example, ``1994 . . . $100,000 (March)'' -- going back through 1993.

Ickes sidestepped questions about the provocative memo three weeks ago, at the end of his defense of President Clinton's campaign finances before Senate investigators, and it passed nearly unnoticed.

But now there is fresh interest in such clues about Mr. Clinton's relationship with Laborers' Union General President Arthur A. Coia, an impeccably tailored lawyer from Barrington who loves to drive Ferraris. The union's in-house prosecutor has told the Justice Department that union charges of mob associations will be lodged against Coia by Friday.

Coia, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, has weathered many storms since his 1981 indictment -- along with his late father and New England crime boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca -- on kickback charges. Those charges were later thrown out.

If the union's internal charges against Coia stick, he will lose his $254,000 job, the union-leased Cadillac, the suite at Washington's Watergate complex and the rest of his perks as leader of 750,000 union members, many of them in tough, bottom-rung jobs, from asbestos-removal and chicken-plucking to boring tunnels and sorting mail.

The path for further investigations into Coia's White House connections is much less clear -- as indicated by the ``Memo from Harold.''

With its hints at top-level interest in Laborers' cash and Laborers' corruption, the memo touches the key elements in the Coia case.

But the memo also illustrates why the Coia case -- like so many threads in the tapestry of questionable campaign finances -- has proved so difficult for investigators to unravel.

To some congressional Republicans, the Coia story raises the specter of the president's chief political fixer exploiting a mob-associated labor leader's access to huge reservoirs of union cash.

But Ickes bluntly dismissed all such theories of wrongdoing in the Clinton reelection effort.He has told investigators for more than a year that he was Mr. Clinton's political point man, his labor point man, his point man on reelection finances. But he has said he never permitted unlawful mingling of those interests.

All the same, the news of pending union charges against Coia may prompt congressional investigators to look more closely at the circumstances of Coia's rise to political power. But Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. declined to say last Thursday whether the Justice Department would pursue its investigation of Coia in the event he is forced out of office.

Coia has been one of Mr. Clinton's most valued financial backers. Even while under scrutiny for alleged Mafia ties, he has enjoyed enviable access to Mr. Clinton's White House. Along the way, Coia has been assisted by Ickes, who signed a contract for his New York law firm to represent a division of Coia's union one month before going to work for Mr. Clinton.

Signing the future White House deputy as a lawyer ``was a home run for us,'' said David Caivano, a Laborers' official who has since been forced out of the union. Ickes has said he believes he never did any work for the union.

THE LABORERS' ranked fourth among labor contributors during the 1996 campaign -- outstripping much bigger unions by pouring about $2.8 million into last year's elections, including $634,588 for the Democrats' unregulated ``soft money'' accounts.

That money helped Mr. Clinton avoid the strict Watergate-era limits on contributions. As Mr. Clinton boasted in a videotaped meeting with contributors in May of last year, the soft money paid for a ``long-running television campaign'' that ``has been central to the position I now enjoy in the polls.''

This year, Coia's union was the third-ranking patron of Mr. Clinton's inaugural, purchasing $157,000 worth of tickets at a time when the union's inspector general was feeling a budget crunch on his anti-corruption work.

Besides contributions, Coia also gave Mr. Clinton political support on his ill-fated health-care initiative in 1993 and 1994, and -- most unusually for a labor leader -- on the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Coia courted Mr. Clinton zealously with such favors and he got favors in return: White House social invitations; an Oval Office meeting during which Mr. Clinton designated Ickes as Coia's White House contact for grant-seeking; a speech by Hillary Rodham Clinton to a union convention in Miami -- which Ickes helped to arrange, even as Coia was negotiating with the Justice Department to keep his job.

This kind of back-scratching, Democrats have pointed out, is utterly routine in Washington -- unsavory perhaps, but hardly illegal.

Mr. Clinton's Democratic supporters did a full-dress rehearsal of their defense of such contacts 15 months ago, when they ridiculed House hearings into Coia's negotiations with the Justice Department. Those talks staved off an attempted federal takeover of the union and permitted Coia to preside over an in-house cleanup, despite the serious charges against him.

The Republicans ran their hurried inquiry on a shoestring, and some of them bragged in advance that they hoped to tie Mr. Clinton to some kind of deal to save Coia -- a case the GOP never nailed down. This opened up their probe to charges that it was an election-year vendetta against Mr. Clinton and the labor movement.

Democrats made fun of the former Laborers' official who testified to Coia's mob associations, wearing a hood to protect his new identity. They flashed a photograph of former President Ronald Reagan with the late Jackie Presser, a corrupt Teamsters boss.

NEVERTHELESS, THE HOUSE crime subcommittee left some building blocks for an in-depth investigation of the Coia-Clinton connection, should congressional Republicans decide to revive the long-dormant case.

For example, the panel turned up evidence of top-level Justice Department efforts to steer Mr. and Mrs. Clinton away from Coia as early as January 1994 -- almost 11 months before prosecutors presented the draft racketeering suit that accused him of mob ties and conspiracy to loot union funds.

But it has never been made clear whether such warnings reached the Clintons and, if so, why Coia's White House contacts proliferated through 1994 and beyond.

Coia secured an invitation from Ickes to travel to Haiti with Mr. Clinton in April 1995 -- about two months after Coia signed the pact with Justice. Coia begged off that trip at the last moment, but Republicans have said that the invitation made them skeptical that the White House was scrupulous about keeping Coia at arm's-length.

Despite such questions, Sen. Fred Thompson's investigative staff decided early this year not to make the Coia case a high priority, partly because the committee's mandate was primarily to examine last year's campaign finances. Coia's high-level White House contacts dwindled in 1995. Furthermore, the ostensible pattern of Coia's contributions to the Democrats was straightforward.

Congressional investigators have not sought to secure the Labor Department audits that

would be needed to examine how the union raised its campaign funds.

But if charges are lodged and proved against Coia, they would stand against a context that did not yet exist during last year's House hearings. That backdrop is the saga of 1996

campaign finances, with its colorful cast of brazen oil-pipeline wheeler-dealers, shy Buddhist nuns and Democratic operatives with poor memories.

Today, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno is weighing the possibility of assigning an independent counsel to look into allegations that Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore ran afoul of campaign-finance laws.

Most commentators believe she will decide against an independent counsel. But if the inquiry rises to that level, Republicans will call for a full-scale review of long-dormant case such as Coia's.

Coia lore that has been of little interest outside his home state could attract wider interest if the charges against him bear out, calling back a legacy of violence and mob corruption that has been handed down through generations of Laborers. The Justice Department expects the union's internal prosecutor to cite one incident from Coia's own sworn deposition in a 1995 lawsuit.

Eight years ago, Coia testified, he was involved in an incident reminiscent of a scene from The Godfather, while lobbying to run for the number-two job in the union, general secretary-treasurer.

Coia said he flew to Chicago to meet with John Serpico, a regional vice president of the union. Coia said Serpico steered him into an O'Hare Airport coffee shop, where he was introduced to Vincent Solano, a capo regime in the Chicago Mafia.

Coia said Solano conferred on him the mob's blessing for the number-two job, but warned Coia that Serpico had been annointed to become general president.

Serpico's lawyer has disputed that account by Coia but federal prosecutors point to it as an example of the evidence that the internal anti-corruption team could use to charge Coia with tolerating mob influence in the union.

After Coia ignored Solano's warning and defeated Serpico for general president in 1993, one of Coia's first official acts was to make Serpico a hearing officer for internal union disciplinary cases.

Prosecutors have also prodded the Laborers' cleanup unit to examine the extensive business that the union has steered to Rhode Island vendors with alleged mob ties.

All the same, it is far from clear that official Washington is set to pursue the Coia case.

The Senate campaign-finance probe will close down on Dec. 31. House campaign-finance investigations are barely underway and are riven with partisan bickering. And Reno's deputy, Holder, declined to say last week whether the Justice Department will push to extend its power to supervise the Laborers' internal investigation. That power lapses in less than four months.

One of Coia's Washington lawyers has suggested, moreover, that the internal charges against Coia will not materialize. As for Coia himself, the Laborers' chief has proven survival skills and gives no indication that he is ready to give up his executive suite three blocks from the White House.

Coia still fires off newspaper opinion pieces about labor's future, still gathers union leaders at Washington Redskins games, still strikes a defiant pose -- represented as he is by such powerful lawyers as Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., the Rhode Island native who defended Oliver North during the Iran-contra hearings of the Reagan era.

During his last interview with the Journal-Bulletin defending his White House dealings earlier this year -- Coia's outer office was guarded by a life-size photographic cutout of

himself, similar to the standup pictures of Mr. Clinton that street hawkers use when taking snapshots of tourists near the White House.

The cardboard Coia wore a black T-shirt emblazoned with a coiled snake and the head of a dog -- from the fighting strain he breeds at his kennels in Rehoboth, Mass. The legend on the shirt reads, ``Only the strong survive.''

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