TIME Magazine




June 24, 1996 Volume 147, No. 26

Both documents were dated Nov. 4, 1994. One was a four-line, handwritten note from President Clinton to Arthur Coia, signed "Bill" and thanking Coia for the gift of a handcrafted golf club ("It's a work of art!"). The second was a draft 212-page complaint from the Justice Department, previewing a lawsuit to place the Laborers' International Union of North America under federal control and oust Coia as general president, on grounds that he had knowingly let mobsters run the 750,000-member union.

After three months of negotiations, however, the Justice Department persuaded the union to sign a consent decree acknowledging Mob influence and conceding to court-appointed officers. But the department agreed to hold off filing the decree as long as the union makes progress cleaning itself up. The deal left Coia on the job even though the original complaint described him as "associated with and controlled and influenced by organized-crime figures."

Those are documentable facts. But almost every other statement that can be made in the case of Coia, the union and the feds is open to question. Did Justice make a deal because of Coia's White House connections? Or because that seemed a quicker and more effective way of getting rid of the thugs? Though there is no evidence of a White House-engineered fix, the Laborers' lavish donations to the Democratic Party and Coia's frequent appearances at the White House--as well as deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes' past life as a lawyer for the Laborers--may hand the Republicans a campaign issue.

Already the deal is a cause celebre in law enforcement. The unprecedented agreement dismayed some investigators in the field, who had spent years building the case against the union. Justice Department prosecutor Paul Coffey, who closed the deal, says he understands these misgivings and admits that "the jury is still out." But, he adds, "if we are not satisfied that [the union] is doing a job as good as or better than a court-appointed officer would," Justice might move for a takeover after all.

Yet the progress--or lack of it--in the cleanup efforts is also in sharp dispute. Some initial skeptics took heart from the high caliber of FBI agents hired by the union: Robert Luskin, a former federal organized-crime prosecutor; Douglas Gow, formerly the No. 2 man at the FBI; and a fleet of seasoned former agents. They insist they are totally independent of Coia. Critics point out that they are paid by the union, which Coia still heads.

So far, say critics--including disgruntled union members and some federal prosecutors and FBI agents outside Washington this dream team has mostly moved against Coia's rivals within the union. And some of the targeted mobsters still have jobs in the Laborers' health and safety or political-action committee funds, beyond the reach of the deal.

The government's contention that the union really is being cleansed got a boost Friday when Luskin and Gow moved to expel 28 suspected mobsters and associates from Local 210 in Buffalo, New York, and bar them from ever resuming membership. Under the Justice-Laborers deal, the expulsions can be contested before a union legal officer, and then another official can be designated to hear appeals. If the expulsions hold up, however, they will accomplish something that has eluded the government for three decades: breaking Mob control of Local 210.

Conceding that Friday's move was a step in the right direction, some investigators and officials in the field nonetheless contend that it is another case of the cleanup team's doing the barest minimum necessary to keep the feds at bay. The Buffalo local, they say, is such a well-known Cosa Nostra fortress--and so prominently featured in the Justice Department's original complaint--that union investigators had to act. Also, some of the ousted officials took with them large life-insurance policies with immediate cash value. Those officials also dropped a lawsuit against the international union that could have forced Coia to testify about an embarrassing matter. In 1994, according to the original Justice complaint, he tried to consolidate all of upstate New York's training funds--a traditional source of slush--in the Mob-controlled Buffalo local but was blocked.

On just about every aspect of the case, in fact, Justice and its critics dispute each other so sharply that they might be describing entirely different proceedings.

The government case: though the Justice-Laborers pact has been denounced as a sweetheart deal, it was justified. A suit seeking to put the Laborers under government control could have dragged through the courts for years. Even then, it is not certain that Coia would have been ousted. "It is not a crime to be controlled by the Mob," prosecutor Coffey points out. To convict Coia under federal racketeering statutes, the government would have to prove that he committed two felonies as part of a criminal conspiracy. So far, "we don't have enough evidence," says an FBI agent.

Under the deal Justice accepted, officials contend, mobsters are indeed being cleaned out--not only in Buffalo but also in the New York City area and soon in Chicago--and Coia has agreed to a rank-and-file vote in September. "It's a stunning achievement in this short period of time," says Coffey. "It took years to accomplish this in the Teamsters." Moreover, Coia himself is very much a target of the investigation his union bankrolls. Says Gow: "I've spent more man-hours on him than on any other entity." Time has also learned that a grand jury is interviewing witnesses about Coia and that the FBI has set up a task force to re-examine allegations against him.

The critics' case: the present deal makes it difficult and in some cases (only a few, says Coffey) impossible for FBI field agents to pass evidence against suspected mobsters to the people responsible for booting them out of the union. Leaving Coia to run the union during the cleanup was at best a bad error of judgment, given the evidence linking him and his father, who also held a top union job, to organized crime. Moreover, a number of events cast doubt on the integrity of the cleanup effort: in New York, Salvatore Lanza, identified with Cosa Nostra in the original complaint, was promoted to treasurer of the union's New York regional PAC. In California rank-and-filers who gave information to the Laborers' investigators were subsequently threatened by local union officials.

Coia's life is far removed from the asbestos strippers and hod carriers his union represents. He lives in an oceanfront mansion in Barrington, Rhode Island, and drives Ferraris. He does not know his own eventual fate since being tossed into "a game of political football by opponents of change and right-wing extremists," he says. But he is eager to talk down his White House ties. Though he sat at Clinton's table during a fund raiser as recently as May and has enjoyed at least one breakfast meeting with the First Lady, Coia insists he was never really a friend of the President's and did not actually enjoy "putting on a tuxedo to go to the White House." It is "part of my job," he says blandly, to win the goodwill of powerful politicians, and he would gladly meet with Newt Gingrich "if I could." That would take some doing, since the Speaker of the House has named Coia as a figure in "a scandal that's about to break." Well, maybe not right away. As Luskin notes, the union has until Feb. 11, 1998, "to prove the deal was sound" and that the union really can cleanse itself.

-- Reported by Edward Barnes/Chicago, William Dowell/New York and Elaine Shannon/Washington

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