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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
In Fresno, Calif., Local 294 member Linda
Cannon protested unfair hiring, fought harassment, filed internal
union charges, and ran for office. "We are battling money,
corruption, and more money," she proclaimed. She came within
16 votes of winning. The union's hearing of officer, a seasoned
former federal racket-buster, found intimidation so extreme he
ordered a new election. The incumbents then wrote each member,
demanding he state whether he wanted a new election and return
the letter-signed. "The business manager can use these letters
to add to his blacklist for jobs," declared one member. Cannon
The Chicago mob shamelessly pirated the 2,000 member Local 225 in Desplaines, Ill. Its business manager for 10 years was a "made" mafioso, Joey Mazza, whom Luskin forced out in 1995. Replacing him was the mob underboss's nephew. He engaged in illegal bookmaking and charged the union for airfare and hotel stays with a girlfriend, a union employee. He and two other officers spent $33,000 for "meals" in just 10 months last year, at which point Luskin sought a trusteeship.
In California, San Francisco-area district-council
boss Archie Thomas draws a yearly salary of $150,000. He put his
son Craig, a convicted rapist, on a training center payroll, violating
a federal law forbidding union employment of violent felons. Craig
packed a .38 caliber pistol on the job. As he rummaged for change
in the cafeteria, the gun fired. Police arrested him for being
a felon in possession of a firearm and seized illegal drugs and
chemicals for manufacturing methamphetamine at his home. He was
convicted of two more felonies.
On July 31, 1997, in Hartford, Conn.,
vice president Steve Manos of Local 230 dared to question expenses
at an executive-board luncheon meeting. The business manager erupted
in profanity and called in the hulking sergeant-at-arms, who slammed
the 53 year-old bantamweight Manos against the wall, hustled him
out of the restaurant, and hurled him onto the sidewalk. A few
months later, Ron Nobili, the reform-minded business manager of
Bridgeport Local 665, at a meeting of all 10 Connecticut business
managers, objected to $35,000 paid for billboard advertising to
an ad agency owned by another business manager's son. The other
business manager walked slowly around the conference table, flexing
his fist, and slugged Nobili. In both cases, executive-board members
of the union were present and did nothing to stop or reprimand
the violent officials. Under the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, these
Laborers' officials have a duty to protect each member's "right
to express at meetings his views upon any business properly before
the meeting." Luskin has made no move to call the derelict
board members to account.
Says Corns: "The Justice Department
gave away too much. They saddled us until 2001 with the same Executive
Board dominated by members who sat there doing nothing while the
racketeers raped and plundered our members. The full three years
is up, Coia's still in office enjoying his mansions and sports
cars, he's got a $50,000a-year raise, and we lose benefits and
pay higher dues. What kind of justice is that?"
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