By Eugene H. Methvin

AUGUST 31, 1998

Eugene H. Methvin, a Washington-based Reader's Digest contributing editor, was a member of the 1983-'86 President's Commission on Organized Crime and directed its investigation into labor-management racketeering

On July 24, 1996, in the historic mahogany paneled hearing room where grim-faced congressmen once considered the impeachment of President Nixon, chairman Bill McCollum of the House Crime Subcommittee gaveled for order. "There will be no photographs permitted of this witness," the Florida Republican instructed. A hood over his head, 50-year-old Ronald M. Fino was led to the witness chair, a screen protecting him from spectators' view.

For 15 years, Fino was business manager of the Laborers' International Union of North America Local 210 in Buffalo, N.Y., and for eight years, one of the union's national officials. "During this time, I witnessed the gripping control of the union and its membership by La Cosa Nostra, and the defilement of its workers' dues and benefit funds," he testified. For all those years, Fino was also an undercover informant for the FBI. In more than 4,000 meetings with FBI agents, he detailed the mob's secret "shadow government" within the union, and how it reached into the Laborers' Washington headquarters just two blocks from the White House.

Fino's testimony struck at the heart of an illicit alliance in which a Mafia-dominated union provided multimillion-dollar campaign contributions and Justice Department racket-busters were shackled. The House subcommittee had confidential information that federal prosecutors had been thwarted in their plan to take over and clean up the union. But subcommittee Democrats blocked subpoenas to compel testimony from witnesses who might have revealed the fix. Instead they heaped ridicule on the witness. "Mr. Fino, do you believe space aliens are linked to the mob?" mocked New York's Charles Schumer.

It's not hard to grasp why Democratic congressmen wanted to undercut Fino's testimony. The Laborers, under president Arthur A. Coia, had managed to snuggle up embarrassingly closely to the Clinton administration. Even before Bill Clinton took office, the Laborers made a $100,000 loan to his inaugural committee. Over the next four years, the union and its political action committee gave various Democratic groups and candidates $4.8 million. Harold Ickes, Clinton's first-term deputy chief of staff, was a New York labor lawyer whose clients included the Laborers, its "education trust fund," and its New York-New Jersey political action committee.

Coia was a regular White House visitor. He was invited to a state dinner for the Japanese emperor, to join the president in greeting the pope in Denver, and to fly with Clinton on Air Force One to Rhode Island and Haiti. The House Crime Subcommittee documented more than 120 contacts in three years between Coia and the Clinton White House, including cash contributions, personal letters, and social-political invitations.

The most important, for Coia, was a meeting in the Oval Office with President Clinton and Ickes on October 21,1994. The White House had just asked the FBI for a "name check" preparatory to naming Coia to a prestigious presidential commission. The FBI's response was stark: "Coia is a criminal associate of the New England Patriarca organized crime family." Moreover, the Justice Department advised that its racket-busters were going to file a suit "within the next several weeks" that "will accuse Coia of being a puppet of the LCN [La Cosa Nostra]." Associate deputy attorney general David Margolis, an organized-crime specialist, repeatedly telephoned warnings to the White House about Coia.

- Nonetheless, in the Oval Office President Clinton presented Coia with a Callaway "Divine Nine" golf club and listened to Coia's complaints about the "low level negative response" his union was getting to applications for federal job-training grants. The president assigned Ickes to look after Coia's concerns. Altogether, in the four fiscal years 1994-1997 after Clinton took office, the Laborers received $50.5 million in federal grants. The day after the Oval Office meeting, Coia wrote a check for $50,000 as a personal "soft money" contribution to the Democratic National Committee. He also gave Clinton a hand-crafted golf club bearing the presidential seal.

This, then, was the union whose penetration by the mob Ronald Fino had come before McCollum's subcommittee, at great personal risk, to describe. Fino had joined the Laborers when he graduated from high school in Buffalo in 1964. His father, Joe Fino, was an ex-con and career mobster. Buffalo's new Mafia boss recognized in the intelligent and gregarious young Fino an excellent front man for the union. Fino was made a salaried agent for the 3,000-member Local 210, a mob fiefdom, and in 1974 was elected business manager. Increasingly disillusioned with the mob, Joe Fino persuaded his Buffalo gang bosses to "keep Ronnie clean" so he could ascend the union's national political ladder and position himself to bring greater power and riches to the Buffalo mob.

And so he did. As the trusted son of a widely known mafioso, Fino rose rapidly in the Laborers. On trips to Washington, New York, and Chicago, he was tutored by national and regional officers about the union's shadow mob government. "Telephones have cancer," he was instructed. All important business was to be conducted face to face. Fino was given the identities of "our people" in the union, told which Mafia families controlled them, and warned which union officials to avoid.

The union's No. 2 man was Arthur E. Coia, father of the current president and boyhood chum and minion of New England Mafia boss Raymond L. S. Patriarca. Coia senior became Ron Fino's mentor. An FBI bug in Patriarca's Providence, R.I., headquarters overheard Patriarca meddling in everything from union elections to decisions on who got kickbacks on coffee machines. His operating philosophy, recorded on FBI tape, was succinct: "Hit them, break their legs to get things your way."

Coia served as chairman of the trustees of the Laborers' multimillion-dollar job-training fund. In 1980, he promoted Fino to the board, explaining that the fund was to be used to provide jobs for gangsters and associates. Coia began to take Fino along on nationwide travels to inspect training sites-and to deliver "messages" to the union's mob operatives.

Fino was no innocent. When he was a child, his mother had told him that his father was "away in the Army." But when they visited Daddy, he realized the "army base" was actually Attica state prison. And his Uncle Nick was there too. His father and uncle were both "made" mafiosi,, and killers. In high school, he saw his father's picture plastered over the Buffalo News as a Mafia capo and acting boss.

But working as a Laborer while still a teenager, Fino developed a rapport with the union's rank-and filers-construction workers and manual laborers, for the most part-and a disgust for the "wise guys" who ran the union and gambled, loansharked,, sold drugs, and loafed on the job. Later, as Local 210's chief executive, he found that his every move to improve his members' lot was blocked by Mafia bosses. They compelled him to pack the union payroll with ex-cons, mobsters, and their relatives. He had to forge records to award pensions to "friends" who had not earned them. The adviser who invested Local 210's $83 million in pension and welfare funds was kicking back to the mob.

The FBI had noticed that Fino, though a "younger generation" mob associate, did not hang out with the gangsters. At a tennis club, a friendly agent cultivated him, and Fino began to complain about the Mafia stranglehold on his union. "Why don't you guys do something about these mob guys?" he asked. "We could," came the answer, "if people like you would help."

Fino agreed, provided he would never be identified or called to testify and nothing he reported would ever be used against his dad. After one pow-wow with a Mafia boss, he was able to tip the Bureau that the mob had corrupted an employee in the FBI's Cleveland office. He reported on Mafia Commission decisions allocating control of different locals among mob "families." He described plans to control and bilk federally funded union training programs.

In the mid-1980s, Fino's mentor suffered a stroke. Arthur A. Coia, by now the union's New England regional manager, succeeded his father as the Laborers' No. 2 national officer.. He and Fino began meeting dozens of times a year, and, like his father, the younger Coia said he had to "answer to" New England's mob boss, Raymond "Junior" Patriarca, who had succeeded his deceased father. Coia also reported to New York's Genovese gang.

The mob takeover of the union was so complete that Fino could no longer stomach it. In Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Valparaiso, Ind., Laborers officials who tried to lead rebellions were murdered. In Fino's Buffalo local, two members, both mafiosi, were murdered because the mob suspected them of informing for the FBI. Fino's own dad died. In November 1987, after reading a Reader's Digest article exposing his union's Mafia ties, Fino contacted the magazine and promised to provide inside information. He also agreed with his FBI handlers to wear a wire, recording his conversations with mobsters, and to testify publicly if necessary. The Fino tapes helped the Justice Department convict dozens of gangsters and seize control of a corrupt district council comprising 12 locals and almost 7,000 members. Prosecutors found that the mobsters had looted the council's seven trust funds of more than $50 million, leaving members and their widows with penurious pensions and without needed medical care.

In February 1993 the Laborers' president Angelo Fosco died. As he later admitted in sworn testimony, Arthur Coia had flown to Chicago and received the blessing of the Chicago mob for his elevation to succeed his father in the union's No. 2 job. According to a Justice Department memo urging his removal from office, Coia recognized "that by receiving mob approval to get his job, he too was a product of [mob] control. The [mob] has controlled the upper levels of the union so that graft and corruption can continue unabated at the local and district council level."

While Coia settled into the high life of a Laborers' president, driving a red Ferrari and enjoying a Florida retreat and an opulent Narragansett Bay home in Rhode Island, Fino continued his undercover work for the FBI. Then one day, before a high-level union meeting, Sam Cardinelli, a Mafia soldier, announced: "Ronnie, I gotta frisk you."

"Put your f-hands on me and I'll break 'em off," Fino answered.

"Out of respect for your father, I won't do it," Cardinelli responded-and Fino's concealed recorder captured the encounter.

Fearing that his cover had been blown, Fino went to Danny Domino, another Mafia soldier and a former Local 210 officer who owed him favors. "Something's wrong," Domino told him. "I don't know what, but I'll find out." Days later, the gangster sent word via a relative: "They know you've been cooperating with the Justice Department, and been doing it for years. There's a contract on you. Danny says get out of town fast."

Fino fled Buffalo and has been in hiding for the past nine years, much of it as a federally protected witness. His testimony has helped convict many union officials. Several pleaded guilty once they learned Fino had taped their conversations.

Despite the highly publicized convictions of Laborers officials in New York and elsewhere, Coia, like his father before him, did nothing to disrupt Mafia control. The Justice Department appealed to him repeatedly to place the corrupt New York council under trusteeship. Instead, Coia spent more than $400,000 in union funds hiring lawyers and investigators to dig for evidence to discredit Fino. They found little.

Arthur A. Coia today remains president of the Laborers' International Union of North America thanks to an unprecedented bargain he struck with the Justice Department. Two weeks after his 1994 Oval Office meeting with Clinton and Ickes, Justice Department racket-busters delivered to the union a draft racketeering complaint, relying heavily on Fino's testimony. Then strange things happened-events that are the subject of a House Judiciary Committee investigation. The Justice Department had a track record of winning 19 straight racketeering actions against crooked labor unions. Its suit against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, for instance, produced a court-ordered trusteeship in just nine months. Yet Justice made what many critics consider a sweetheart deal with Coia. The union was allowed to undertake its own house-cleaning, under Justice Department oversight. Coia hired as the union's internal prosecutor Robert A. Luskin, the criminal defense lawyer who arranged the unique compromise. To gather evidence, he hired a former FBI official, and to rule on any charges Luskin pressed, he hired a respected former U.S. attorney.

Union dissidents and federal investigators complain that the Justice Department made a bad bargain. The union's surrogate cleanup crew has no power to subpoena witnesses. Luskin reports to Coia instead of to a federal judge, and has kept rank-and-file Laborers largely in the dark. Moreover, the government cannot turn over FBI electronic surveillance or other critical evidence of mob penetration that would be available under a court-supervised trusteeship.

As Coia's hand-picked cleanup man, Luskin from the start seemed to drag his feet. More than a year elapsed before he prosecuted Fino's Local 210 in Buffalo, one of the country's most notorious mob-owned locals. He waited two-and-a-half years to seek a trusteeship over the equally corrupt Chicago district council, whose top officers-all of them gangsters or mob associate s 21 Laborers locals, 19,000 union members, and $1.5 billion in health and pension funds. Indeed, Luskin did not secure this trusteeship until February 9, 1998, two days before the original three-year term of the Justice Department's oversight agreement expired. Justice and the union agreed to a belated one-year extension.

Before the Laborers' 1996 national convention, Justice asked Northwestern University law professor Stephen B. Goldberg to research the union's delegate selection rules. He found them rigged "to discourage or discriminate against dissidents." Not one member of Long Island's Mafia-dominated Local 66, for instance, dared nominate veteran rebel Barney Scanlon. So Scanlon, 70 years old and "not afraid to die," nominated himself, and in federally supervised secret balloting actually won with a two-thirds majority.

Scanlon and other reformers proved to be a minor irritant. Coia's convention steamroller increased members' dues 27 percent to $228 a year, and eliminated their $1,500 death benefit. Then the convention voted to raise Coia's salary nearly 20 percent, to $250,000 a year, and to provide him with a new home in Washington. "Unconscionable!" protested Barney Scanlon. "The guy who pulls on his boots in the morning has to work for ten years to equal the salary you just voted."

The convention reelected the executive board to new five-year terms. But, at Justice's insistence, rank-and-filers were asked in a referendum if they wanted to switch to direct election when present executive board members' terms end in 2001. By a whopping 78 percent majority, 49,964 to 14,246, they chose to select their vice-presidents by direct one-member, one-vote elections.

Halfway through the three-year Justice-Laborers agreement, in July 1996, the House Crime Subcommittee summoned Paul Coffey, the Justice Department crime-fighter who had called Coia a Mafia puppet, to explain why Coia was still in control. "Is he a puppet today? We're not sure," Coffey testified. "He did what you don't normally see puppets do; he said, 'I can kick them out, too.' He's got no choice but to get rid of the mob. The minute he decides he won't do it, or he's slow in doing it, he goes, too."

Today, two more years have passed. Coffey has retired, and Coia still runs the Laborers. Ron Fino and other critics complain that Coia has survived for nearly four years by adopting a shrewd damage-control strategy, playing the public role of reformer while moving chiefly against his rivals in the "shadow government" and ignoring the mob overlords in his Northeast home base. Indeed, federal informants report that the Genovese family is now in complete control of the union.

Last November, when the three-year oversight agreement was about to expire and the Justice Department threatened to take over the union, Luskin moved finally to oust Coia. The charges: Coia "knowingly associated" with Mafia members and permitted them to influence the union, breaching his constitutional and fiduciary duties. Coia also "improperly accepted benefits" from a union service provider. The union's hearing officer, though, decreed that both the charges and hearing would be secret. Rank-and-filers are still waiting for his decision.

Meantime, the government's oversight agreement ends next January, and union members continue to suffer embezzlement, assaults, and other outrages:


The Laborers' struggle offers lessons for the entire nation. University of Pennsylvania law professor Clyde Summers, who helped draft the Landrum-Griffin Act's "union members' bill of rights," told Congress in May that four decades of experience have shown a need to provide more safeguards against labor racketeers: "To maintain an effective democratic process in the national unions, all national, intermediate and local officers should be elected by direct vote rather than through conventions or delegates." A direct vote of members should also be required to raise union dues, he urged. These reforms would help rank-and-filers "maintain adequate control" and make it more difficult to "stifle democracy and opposition groups."

Meantime, the Justice Department's effort to cleanse the Laborers Union of the brutal shadow government Ron Fino so courageously exposed drags on. A recent issue of Hard Hat Construction Magazine paid him well-deserved tribute: "Unlike most mob informants, Fino volunteered. He was not trying to turn in mob associates in exchange for a lighter prison sentence, and he was not trying to get rich. He tried to do the right thing, and he has paid the price. He lost his good [union] job, he lost his family, and the Buffalo Cosa Nostra put a price on his head. He lives on the run, while many of the mobsters he incriminated are still leading the plush life."

Copyright, The Weekly Standard, Reprinted by permission.

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