BY JOHN E. MULLIGAN AND DEAN STARKMAN
John E Mulligan is the Providence Journal-Bulletin's Washington
bureau chief. Dean Starkman is chief of the newspaper's investigutive
With droopy eyes and an engaging, boyish smile, Arthur A. Coia
presents himself as the new face of American labor. Coia is the
general president of the Laborer's International Union of North
America, the sprawling association of toxic waste handlers, oil
riggers, and tunnel diggers. An unabashed supporter of free trade
and "worker-management cooperation," Coia has successfully
sold himself to journalists and politicians as an avatar of reform.
Also a staunch ally and financial supporter of President Clinton,
Coia was an early backer of the new leadership at the once-listless
AFL-CIO. His efforts to recruit low-paid, disenfranchised workers
and to raise the profile of labor in the political arena are part
of a trend that many say has reenergized organized labor. Meanwhile,
Coia claims decisive victories in breaking labor's longstanding
and notorious partnership with organized crime.
But the odd case of Arthur Coia illustrates a less sanguine picture
of unions in 1996: one of lingering corruption, mob ties, and
political influence-a volatile mix. On November 4, 1994, Coia
was served with a 212-page draft racketeering complaint from the
Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section.
The document accused Coia of extortion, pilfering union funds,
and ruthlessly crushing dissent in his union. Charging that the
Laborers' International was under the mob's thumb, the Justice
Department served notice of its intent to take over and throw
But then something strange happened. The racketeering complaint
was never filed. Instead, Coia hired Brendan V. Sullivan Jr.-Oliver
North's Iran-Contra lawyer-plus a veteran of the Organized Crime
section to fend off prosecutors. Negotiations lasted three months
and involved the Criminal Division chief at Justice. The settlement,
when it came' was an enormous victory for Coia. Not only did he
keep his position atop the union, he also beat back reforms that
would have brought real democracy to the Laborers and handed power
to the rank and file.
Coia's story is one of a great failure of law enforcement, set
in a rarified atmosphere of multi-million dollar campaign contributions
and intimate White House dinners. Federal law enforcement officials
involved in the case, who wanted Coia removed but were overruled,
grumble about a link between the toothless settlement and Coia's
political friendship with the President. The few union members
willing to speak out say they don't understand how Coia slipped
through the Justice Department's net. "It's like everything
[Coia] does is okay because he's a friend of Clinton," says
Alex Corns, a hod carrier in Northern California.
Carl Stern, a spokesman for Attorney General Janet Reno, says
any such suggestion is "moronic." But whatever the case,
the membership is further from taking control of their union today
than a year ago, and deep corruption persists. Bizarrely, Reno
echoes Coia's boast that the agreement is a model for future racket-busting,
part of a trend toward self-regulation. In reality, prosecutors
have farmed out the task of mob-busting to a union boss they once
charged as a racketeer.
Arthur Coia's father, Arthur Ettore Coia, was the general secretary-treasurer
of the Laborers' International, which represents 750,000 unskilled
workers in dozens of fields. Almost single-handedly, he molded
the union into a political force that still holds Providence city
hall in its grip. The union doled out pensions to City Council
members and hired Providence political figures and their relatives.
The old man had the ear of Rhode Island governors and the late
House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr.
Coia's father also had other, sinister contacts. He had a relationship-casual,
he insisted-with the legendary boss of New England organized crime,
Raymond L.S. Patriarca, that dated to their youth in the 1930s.
FBI wiretaps, planted in the early 1960s, crackled with the sound
of Patriarca meddling in everything from Laborers elections to
decisions on who got kickbacks on union coffee machines. "Hit
them, break legs to get things your way," Patriarca was overheard
According to Ronald M. Fino, a Laborers executive turned government
informant, the elder Coia reported regularly to mobsters around
the country: the Chicago Syndicate, the Todaro family of Buffalo,
and the Gambino and Genovese families of New York. Fino says Coia's
father also confided that he took kickbacks and bribes, and used
training funds as open-ended expense accounts.
The younger Coia followed his father into the union and, by his
mid twenties, was the chief of the Rhode Island Laborers. In 1981,
Coia, his father, and Patriarca were indicted for racketeering
and taking bribes from an insurance swindler who had been the
younger Coia's law client. The case never went to a jury because
a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired. In
1986, the Coias and their union received more unwanted attention
when the President's Commission on Organized Crime weighed in
with a 393-page report on labor rackets that called the Laborers
one of the nation's "Bad Four," the worst of the worst
corrupt unions, alongside the Teamsters, Hotel Workers, and Longshoremen.
The commission, made up of federal judges and former U.S. attorneys,
decried the looting of benefit plans, death threats, and murders
of opposing candidates.
The mob's grip on the Laborers was particularly ironclad because
the union has such broad authority over its workers. If you want
work as a Laborer-say, cleaning toxic-waste-you don't go to an
employer. You go to the union "hiring hall." Local officers
there decide who works and who doesn't, so complaining about mob
influence gets you blackballed. Real troublemakers might draw
beatings, or worse. And workers never even see the complicated
kickback schemes, real estate frauds, and other misuse of their
dues. Such investments are made by union leaders, beholden not
to the rank and file but to bosses whose chain of command runs
straight to the general president's office and, from there, to
In 1989, Coia sought to replace his ailing father as general secretary-treasurer. When he flew to Chicago to a lobby union a vice president, John Serpico, Coia says Serpico greeted him warmly at O'Hare, then steered him into an airport coffee shop to meet Vincent Solano, a capo regime in the Chicago Mafia. In a scene out of The Godfather, Solano bestowed on him the Mafia's blessing for the No. 2 job. But Coia was warned not to try for the general presidency, a job reserved for Serpico.
Coia described this scene in testimony before a closed union disciplinary
hearing last May. Serpico's lawyer, Matthias A. Lydon of Chicago.
hotly disputes Coia's account. True or not, the story belies Coia's
public denials of mob influence in the Laborers.
As Coia leapfrogged through the ranks of the Laborers, he built
an interlocking network of interests that blurred the line between
his profit-making businesses and his union duties. He started
a law firm that for years has billed Rhode Island Laborers' trust
funds. He formed a real estate partnership with a top city official
and a prominent local contractor, and became the landlord for
some of his own union's offices and the contractor's headquarters.
This has been illegal since 1947, when the Taft-Hartley Act barred
union officials from accepting outside payments from anyone employing
workers from the union. And just before the Justice Department
came calling in the fall of 1994, a Laborers legal fund bought
a souring real estate investment from Coia's partnership-for $2.3
The outside income has augmented Coia's union salary, $218,959
in 1994. He owns homes on Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay and
in Delray Beach, Florida. Last year, he pulled up to a Providence
nightclub in a fire-engine red Ferrari, a make of automobile for
which he confesses a particular weakness. Coia and his wife Joanne
also have engaged in the costly hobby of championship dog breeding.
At one point, Coia tried to mate his stud dog with a bitch owned
by Raymond J. "Junior" Patriarca, then underboss of
the New England mob. The coupling failed to produce puppies.
In 1993, Coia completed his rise to the general presidency of
the Laborers' International. He set right to work on a campaign
for legitimacy. He revved up the union's pitiful public relations
operation. He embraced progressive causes, including the Clintons''
health-care reform effort. And he opened the Laborers' checkbook.
The union ranked sixth in "soft money" donations to
the Democratic Party in 1994 and political action committees under
Coia's control have given more than two million dollars to congressional
candidates-mostly Democrats-for 1994 and 1996. Coia has attended
several affairs with the President and First Lady. With Robert
Strauss, Vernon Jordan, Dwayne Andreas, and Ronald Perelman, Coia
co-chaired a 1994 Democratic fundraiser that raised $3.5 million.
By the end of that year, Coia could secure an audience with the
President in the Oval Office. "We aren't being paid attention
to," Coia says he told Clinton, complaining that his union
had been bypassed for federal grants and contracts. According
to Coia, the President told him to take such problems to Deputy
Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, who sat nearby. Clinton also produced
a Calloway "Divine Nine" golf club and presented it
to the union boss as a gesture of friendship. Coia soon returned
the favor with a custom-made driver crafted by a Rhode Island
artisan and decorated with the presidential seal and Bill Clinton's
signature. "Thanks for the gorgeous driver," read Clinton's
thank-you note. "It's a work of art!"
Coia, who lives a life beyond the fantasies of the union's chicken-pluckers
and auto part assemblers, nevertheless presents himself as a champion
of the ordinary worker. He took out an ad on the op-ed page of
The New York Times to denounce Pat Buchanan and tout "a vision
to restore the American standard of living." In a campaign
that echoes John J. Sweeney's plan for the AFL-CIO, Coia launched
a widely publicized, $5 million organizing drive to rally low-wage
workers such as poor schoolbus drivers and catfish farm workers.
The labor community applauded. "He's trying to turn his union
around," says Barbara Easterling of the Communications Workers
of America. "Now the talk is of a different face of the Laborers."
Coia has also drawn praise for his work to rid his union of mob
corruption. He has "done a hell of a job trying to clean
up his own union," says Gerald W. McEntee, president of the
1.3 million member American Federation of State, County, and Municipal
But some things at the Laborers haven't changed. In 1994, according
to the government's draft racketeering complaint, Coia conspired
with organized crime elements to drain pension funds from locals
in upstate New York. As part of the scheme, he tried to force
Local Union 435 in Rochester, New York, into a new regional organization
whose top two officers were mob associates, according to the government.
Coia denies the allegation and says he was only trying to streamline
the bureaucracy. A federal judge voided Coia's takeover. But around
the country, would-be dissidents got the message.
Just as Coia was reaching the pinnacle of his power, the Laborers
was hitting bottom. Locals in Chicago, Cleveland, and Buffalo
were all under Mafia rule. Strong-armed union bosses ruled out
West, as well. But nowhere was it worse than at the Greater New
York Mason Tenders District Council, a Laborers affiliate representing
about 6,000 asbestos workers, brickhaulers, and common laborers
in a dozen locals. There, the mob ruled openly, brutally, and
brazenly. The president of one Laborers local was a Genovese capo.
The president of another was a Luchese soldier. A DeCavalcante acting boss was the business manager of a third. Union officers took kickbacks with their morning coffee. Builders who wanted to use cheap,
non-union labor could be guaranteed that union leaders-- elected to protect the interests of workers-would look the other way in return for a payoff. Professional groups-often with links to the mob- would grossly overcharge union medical, pension, and legal funds.
This all happened on Coia's watch.
He and the rest of the international's general executive board,
who have a fiduciary duty to protect members from such abuses,
kept themselves transcendentally ignorant about the open looting
of the New York Laborers. In 1989, after an official of Queens
Local 46 was convicted of racketeering, Coia and two other top
international executives assured the Labor Department in writing
that "honest and effective representation is finally being
provided." While there is no evidence that Coia knew the
mob was still in control, sworn statements and government wiretaps
later showed that the new local president was hand-picked by the
The open corruption at the Mason Tenders drew the attention of
federal prosecutors. In 1989 and 1990, the Justice Department
won a string of very public cases that smashed the mob's grip
on the Laborers' unit. Trial evidence showed the direct involvement
of mobsters such as Gambino family don John Gotti. In 1993, the
president of the New York Laborers pleaded guilty to one of the
largest cases of real estate fraud in U.S. labor history. Corrupt
union leaders had used union funds to buy run-down property for
far more than its value, a good way to funnel cash to mobsters
but devastating to the pension funds of the rank and file.
Eventually, prosecutors announced plans to take over the entire
New York affiliate. The lead prosecutor, Alan N. Taffet, repeatedly
demanded to know "whether and when" Coia would move
to end the "systematic corruption" in New York, according
to court documents. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence
of the union's subjugation to the mob, a judge ruled, Coia failed
By this point, a separate investigation was lining up a new target:
Coia himself. On November 4, 1994 the same day President Clinton
dashed off a note thanking Coia for his golf club-the Justice
Department delivered the 212 page draft racketeering complaint
to the union with allegations, among other charges, of Coia's
longstanding collusion with the Mafia.
The document also contained a new charge: that Coia's takeover
of the Rochester local had been part of a conspiracy with the
Todaro organized crime family of Buffalo to drain benefit funds.
The government was planning to ask the court for its silver bullet:
a full-scale takeover by a federal judge.
That's what happened in 1989, when the government kicked in the
doors of the notoriously corrupt International Brotherhood of
Teamsters. In that case, prosecutors won a sweeping mandate and
imposed a trusteeship answerable to a federal judge. The takeover
caused nothing less than a revolution. It spurred the first free
elections in Teamsters' history, sweeping into power Ron Carey,
a reformer who promptly sold off the union's Lear Jets and limousines,
cut staff salaries, including his own, and slashed bureaucracy.
Carey may be no angel, but he represents a genuine grassroots
insurgency made possible by the United States government. Local
elections are free and fair. Members have real power to throw
Prosecutors wanted to effect the same sweeping changes at the
Laborers. But Coia had something else in mind. He fought back,
hiring the powerhouse law firm of Williams & Connelly and,
as his personal lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, famous for his performance
at the Iran-Contra hearings. Coia also hired Robert D. Luskin,
formerly of the Justice Department's Organized Crime Section,
to negotiate with Justice. The lawyers staunchly refused even
to consider Coia's resignation and promised a scorched-earth fight
if the government tried to take over.
Word of the investigation reached the White House, which canceled
the speech that Hillary Clinton had planned to give at a union
conference in Florida on Feb. 6, 1995. But Coia argued strenuously
to have the speech put back on the schedule, reminding the White
House of his past political help, according' to the union. Mrs.
Clinton kept the engagement. Deputy Chief of Staff Ickes advised
the First Lady to avoid private meetings or conversations with
Coia because the White House considered Coia "currently under
investigation." Meanwhile, negotiations between the Laborers
and Justice continued. A week after Mrs. Clinton's appearance
there was a deal. The two sides signed a document about a page-and-a-half
in length that essentially asked Coia to clean up the Laborers'
act-on his own terms. Coia responded by hiring his own "reform
team," a group to work inside the Laborers to root out corruption.
Whatever the government's intentions, the agreement has actually
consolidated Coia's position within the union and deflected open
scrutiny of his past. But this should come as no surprise. The
agreement put Coia and his old board in firm control of the reform
campaign, including the power to hire and fire the reform team's
members. There is no judicial oversight. "To make an agreement
like this work you have to have the muscle," says a federal
law enforcement official. "We don't have the muscle."
And "muscle," this source explains, is a federal judge
enforcing the terms of the cleanup.
Some law enforcement officials suspect the worst: that somehow
Coia's political influence was brought to bear at Justice. "I'm
sure it happened," says one such official. "I just don't
think we'll ever find out who made the call." The agreement
of Feb. 13, 1995, opened a split between federal agents and prosecutors
in the field and their Justice Department overseers in Washington.
The rift has widened in the year since. "I don't think anybody
is happy with the way things have progressed," says the official.
"It hasn't been a pretty picture."
Coia and his PR shop have loudly trumpeted the reform program
and the glittering array of former federal prosecutors and FBI
agents now on the Laborers' payroll. Coia designated Luskin to
head up the campaign. In other words, the same man who had won
the sweetheart deal for the Laborers in the first place would
be in charge of rooting out corruption
Prosecutors' only leverage is the threat of a government takeover,
but since this move was rejected in the recent negotiations, the
threat doesn't carry much weight. Luskin is defensive about being
perceived as Coia's ally. "I'm not Arthur Coia's attorney,"
he snapped to the Buffalo News in February. But he is being rewarded
handsomely. He confirms that he's billed the union at least $500,000
so far. Asked if his billings have topped $1 million, he says,
"I don't know." Coia and the union also hired W. Douglas
Gow, a former FBI agent, as the union's new inspector general.
Gow declines to say how much he is paid and referred questions
about the cost of the cleanup to the union's PR operation, which
did not return telephone calls. So far, the disciplinary team
has forced the resignations of 27 mob-linked union members; six
trusteeships have been imposed on wayward locals and four tainted
local elections were overturned.
The awkwardness of the arrangement, though, was illustrated in
the case of Cruz Gutierrez, a 52 year-old foreman in Local 261
in San Francisco and an outspoken critic of local bosses. He took
a blackballing complaint to Gow last year, and soon received a
menacing phone call from from a local boss. "I want to thank
you for jeopardizing the
lives of my family and myself," Gutierrez wrote to Gow. For
his part, Gow says he made a mistake and has not repeated it.
He also says he has "100 percent autonomy" in pursuing
corruption, and that he has been effective.
But the old guard still rules. Gene Johnson, a Laborers officer
from central Illinois for 35 years, says that since the February
1995 agreement, the international has tried to force the merger
of his district organization into another controlled by a Coia
ally. Johnson says he has resisted-and been threatened and harassed
for his trouble. He also says that during a May 1995 meeting,
Coia promised to "take care of" two of Johnson's sons
on the union payroll and enhance Johnson's union pension in return
for his cooperation. Johnson refused.
Johnson says that at that same meeting, Coia learned that Gow
and his agents had cleared Johnson of a misconduct complaint brought
by a rival. Coia got angry at Gow and his agents, according to
Johnson. "These sons of bitches are supposed to do as I tell
them," Coia said, according to Johnson. Says Johnson: "I
think the mob has better control of this union than it has in
the 35 years I've been here." By press time, Coia and the
union had not responded to repeated telephone calls and a letter
detailing Johnson's charges.
Some law enforcement officials, who ask for anonymity, describe the Laborers' cleanup effort as an elaborate and artfully crafted charade. They say its main result has been to strengthen Coia's hand and purge his rivals, noting that cases that have veered toward Coia have all folded like $3 suitcases. When Samuel J. Caivano was bounced from the union's executive board, he sued and charged that Coia was the true mob associate and should be the target of any reform effort. A federal judge in Washington, Emmet G. Sullivan, was puzzled too. During a hearing in April, 1995 he remarked: "A deal was cut; obviously something happened with regard to Coia. A deal was cut. Why wasn't Coia removed?" The case was settled-on financial terms favorable to Caivano-before the question could be answered.
And last May in Chicago, minutes before a lawyer for Serpico,
another suspended vice-president, was to cross-examine Coia under
oath, Luskin asked for a recess and settled that case.
The bottom line is that the government is on the outside looking
in. "We're always on them to do more, and they're always
resisting our attempt to tell them what to do," says Craig
Oswald, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago and a key player
in negotiations with the Laborers. For instance, prosecutors had
hoped for real election reform. But Coia failed to produce. Prosecutors
were so unhappy that, months after the original agreement, they
recommended to Washington that the government take over the Laborers
But instructions came back to compromise again. So Coia got another
nice deal: watered-down democracy that all but guarantees his
reign into the next century. That's because only the union's top
two officers are subject to direct elections. The rest of the
executive board will continue to be selected under the old rules
that allowed a half-century of mob dominance. "Token democracy,"
Chris White, a bus driver from Fairbanks, Alaska, called the plan.
White plans a symbolic "Dump Coia" campaign this year.
But he doesn't stand a chance. Coia will have a hefty war chest
to finance a national campaign. More importantly, he commands
the loyalty of hundreds of local and regional officials. Dissidents
say their only chance to gain any power is to pick off regions
one at a time through direct elections of the executive board.
But that won't happen for at least five years.
In an interview in his eighth-floor executive suite, Coia is a
paradox. Dressed in a dark, chalk-striped shirt with French cuffs
and sipping Evian water, he slips regularly into Providence street
talk. His position on reform at Laborers is also a paradox. First,
he denies that there's much of a problem-only negligible "pockets
of corruption," he says. Then he insists on getting the credit
for the cleanup. "This is my process, my suggestion. my development,
and my implementation of it," he says, growing animated.
May 1996 / The Washington Monthly