Laborers President Cleared By Union

Coia fined $100,000 for 'improper' deal

By Stephen Franklin

TRIBUNE Staff Writer

Laborers Union President,Arthur Coia, whose 450,000 member union faced a government takeover four years ago due to alleged mob ties, was cleared Tuesday after his union conducted its own probe of Coia's alleged organized crime links. The union's independent hearing officer said, however, that the 56-year-old union leader had benefited "improperly" from a 1991 deal to buy a high-priced car from a car dealer that did business with the union. The union fined Coia $100,000.

Justice Department officials in Washington and in Chicago said they were disappointed by the decision. They described it as containing "serious factual and legal errors," and federal prosecutors said in a statement they would urge the union's top attorney to appeal the decision. But they did not detail the errors in the long-awaited, 108-page decision handed down by Peter Vaira. A former head of the government's organized crime task force in Chicago and former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, Vaira was picked by the union to lead its investigation..

Union officials pointed out that their own probe did not bar the government from taking action against Coia.

Dissidents, who make up a small number in the 94-year-old union, were outraged at the decision, calling it a "whitewash" and protesting that the union's self-administered cleanup has flopped. "What a joke," said Alex Corns, the business manager of Hod Carriers Local 36 in San Francisco, and one of a few officials who have publicly challenged the union's leadership. "What's happening is that all of these guys are getting off the hook and they are telling the guys on the street, 'Nothing's going to happen to us.' "

The decision also drew a sharp rebuke from the National Legal and Policy Center, a Washington-based group that focuses on alleged union corruption. "This slap on the wrist further demonstrates that the Department of Justice was wrong to put its faith in the idea that the union could reform itself," said the group.

But Michael Bearse, the union's general counsel, insisted that the investigation had not been a whitewash. There had been 22 days of hearings on the charges against Coia, which resulted in over 5,500 pages of transcript, he noted.

Coia, an attorney from Providence, RL, inherited his father's position as the Laborers' general secretary in 1989 and was named union president by the union's board in 1993. He issued a brief statement saying he intended "to continue the work of making LIUNA (the Laborers Union) the best, the cleanest, most democratic union anywhere." He could not be reached for further comment.

After probing the union for several years, Justice Department officials in late 1994 confronted the union with their findings that the union had been the handmaiden of Chicago-based mobsters from 1926 onward and was riddled with corrupt leaders. Then, in an unusual deal federal officials agreed in 1995 to let the union carry out its own cleanup. But the government held the option of taking over the union at any time if the reform process failed. The union hired former FBI agents and federal prosecutors to carry out its own housecleaning.

As a part of its deal, the government never formally filed its charges, which also alleged that the union's three presidents prior to Coia, men who had risen from the ranks in Chicago were "controlled and influenced by organized crime figures." Though it was expected to last a short while, the cleanup of the Laborers Union has dragged on, and the government has repeatedly renewed its authority to step in. It recently extended its oversight of the union until next year. So far, over 200 union officials have stepped down from their jobs, and the union has seized control of over 20 district councils or locals, according to Robert Luskin, the attorney for the union's general executive board.

The 19,000-member Chicago District Council was one of those taken over by the union. When it was placed under a trustee in February of last year, union investigators said that the council's leaders were chosen "in little more than a game of mob musical chairs."

In the car deal that netted Coia the $100,000 fine, the hearing officer said, Coia had bought a 1991 Ferrari F40 for $450,000 from a dealer that regularly deals with the union. As a result of the financing package and registration worked out by the dealership, Coia was able to cut his costs and to avoid paying at least $77,750 in taxes, said Vaira. That, he wrote, was a violation of union rules.

(c) 1999, Chicago Tribune

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