By John O'Brien, Tribune Staff Writer

Web-posted Friday, November 7, 1997; 6:20 a.m. CST

For decades the leadership of the Laborers Union has been little more than a tool of organized crime, federal prosecutors say, with its traditional Chicago leadership and lucrative funds for the health and welfare of members influenced by reputed mob figures.

On Thursday, the union's own internal watchdog seemed to validate that stark commentary. It accused the chief executive, Laborers President Arthur A. Coia, of associating with gangland figures and allowing them to dictate the affairs of the union.

The accusations are dated, going back to a seven-year period ending in 1993, when Coia served in lesser positions of trust before being elected president.

The charges against Coia, predicted by him in a general membership statement issued 10 days ago, seek his removal from office, pending a disciplinary hearing.

Informed of the action against him, Coia denied the charges and vowed to fight them at his trial before the union's independent hearing officer, Peter Vaira.

No trial is likely until December or January. Until then, officials said Coia may remain in office.

The charges come nearly three years after the union, with Coia's affirmation, agreed to government demands to purge corruption from its own ranks. If the cleanup faltered, the government reserved the right to step in.

When the deal was struck in January 1995, government officials were poised to file a racketeering complaint against the union, saying that Coia and three of his predecessors from Chicago were controlled by the mob.

The union's 450,000 members of record include 19,000 in the Chicago area. All perform construction work and other gritty jobs.

Only last month, the union's corruption-hunting machinery concluded extensive hearings into charges that the Laborers District Council in Chicago, headed by Bruno Caruso, is mob-connected. A ruling on those charges is expected before Jan. 1.

Coia, like Caruso, has vehemently denied any wrongdoing. But each has accused the other of being a tool of mobsters.

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