Providence Journal-Bulletin

Arthur and Bill: A Love Story


Sept. 1, 1996

WASHINGTON --- DICK MORRIS is not the only Clinton operative who keeps some interesting company. One of the President's closest allies in the political wars these days is Arthur Jr., who succeeded his father a few years ago as president of the Laborers International Union of North America.

The close association of a Democratic President with a union leader would not normally attract much attention, especially in a year when the AFL-CIO, under new leadership, is seeking to breathe life into a moribund labor movement. But just as Bill Clinton is no ordinary Democratic president, Arthur Coia is no run-of-the-mill labor statesman, either. For in addition to running the 700,000-member LIUNA, taking out full-page ads in major newspapers defending the President and first lady against Whitewater allegations, and donating millions of dollars to Democratic campaign war chests, Mr. Coia is a great and good friend of mobsters as well.

Don't take my word for it, however; listen to the Clinton Justice Department. In late 1994, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and associates delivered a draft civil racketeering complaint against the Laborers, accusing the union of being controlled by organized crime and asserting that Mr. Coia has "associated with, and been controlled and influenced by, organized crime figures." His father was a close chum of the late Raymond Patriarca, the Providence-based chief of the New England mob; young Coia is a lifelong buddy of Raymond Jr., now thankfully in federal custody.

For that matter, he reportedly learned much from such family connections: The Justice Department alleged that Mr. Coia and his colleagues "employed actual and threatened force, violence and fear of physical and economic injury to create a climate of intimidation and fear."

Accordingly, the Justice Department looked upon the Laborers in roughly the same way as it had the Teamsters and, before them, the Longshoremen: LIUNA has been in the thrall of the mob for so long, and so pervasively, that the only solution would be a wholesale government takeover of the union to restore, by heroic means, some semblance of democracy.

The first order of business was to remove Mr. Coia from office. But Mr. Coia declined to go. Moreover, he employed a battalion of legal tacticians and publicists to argue his case against the feds. That was smart thinking, of course. Still, anybody can hire a lawyer and press agent. Mr. Coia was shrewd enough to open the union coffers to President Clinton and his party, and the battle was joined. Since that time, LIUNA has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in union dues to defend the President, and contributed $1.1 million to the Democrats during the 1994 elections. During last week's national convention in Chicago, Mr. Coia's lavish hospitality was everywhere in evidence. Indeed, one sparkling reception featured a cigar-chomping denizens of the Chicago Mafia, attracting the attention of network TV cameras.

Mr. Coia has reason to be grateful to President Clinton, for just a few days after first lady Hillary Clinton had addressed the Laborers' annual conference in Florida, the Justice Department staged a strategic retreat. Mr. Coia and the Justice Department signed an unprecedented consent decree that allows the stem-to-stern reform of LIUNA to be undertaken and supervised by - well, Arthur Coia, along with a handful of lawyers and bureaucrats with intimate ties to the union.

How did this happen? Undoubtedly, the connection is Harold Ickes Jr., President Clinton's deputy chief of staff. Mr. Ickes, too, has a famous father - Harold Ickes Sr., FDR's Interior secretary - but he also has something approaching an infamous past. During his years as a New York litigator, Mr. Ickes was best known for his work defending LIUNA against the Justice Department, and counseling other unions accused of violence, racketeering and Mafia control.

Mr. Coia, to his credit, is cheerfully candid about relations with Mr. Ickes, and likes to tell reporters about his dealings with the White House. Mr. Ickes, by contrast, is suitably discreet: Sometimes, in lawyerly language, he denies the Coia connection; most times he simply declines to answer questions.

The President's apologists, to be sure, are quite content. Congressional Democrats argue that any misgivings anyone might have about commissioning Arthur Coia and his colorful associates to clean up a mob-run union are largely partisan. And the Laborers' relentless PR machine has yielded some favorable press: The most hilarious example of this was a recent column by Thomas Oliphant of The Boston Globe extolling Arthur Coia and characterizing LIUNA as "the most fascinating union in the country."

Fascinating, yes - and for many more reasons than Mr. Oliphant could imagine.

Copyright © 1996 The Providence Journal Company

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