GOP senator faults Clintons' relationship with Coia

But the President's ties to Coia did not influence a federal probe of the Laborers' union, a subcommittee finds.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's dealings with Laborers' unionchief Arthur A. Coia showed the same "callous disregard for propriety" that emerged in Democratic Party fund-raising controversies last fall, the chairman of a House investigative panel charged yesterday.

Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., chairman of the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, also said that Mr. Clinton's political and social friendship with Coia could have had a "chilling effect" on federal prosecutors who were preparing a racketeering case against the mob-tainted union.

But the panel's investigation and its two-day public hearing in July turned up no evidence that the Justice Department had, in fact, been chilled in its pursuit of corruption in Coia's union, according to McCollum.

The subcommittee's Democratic minority stresses that point in its "dissenting views" criticizing what it portrays as a politically motivated, election-year investigation of a Clinton friend in organized labor.

McCollum released the subcommittee's 77-page report on the investigation into the administration's efforts against organized crime's influence in the 750,000-member union.

Robert D. Luskin, the lawyer who is acting as prosecutor on the union's internal anti-corruption team, applauded what he described as the House panel's finding "that there was no evidence of a fix here . . . no evidence for the charges out there that our effort was a sham or being conducted in bad faith."

Luskin negotiated a 1995 agreement between the union and the Justice Department that staved off a federal takeover of the Laborers and let Coia remain in charge. Instead, an in-house team of former federal law enforcement agents was created to fight Mafia influence in the union. The government has no direct role, but retains the right to seize the union, until February 1998, if it decides that the agreement isn't working.

Providence native Coia, who was reelected general president of the union last month, remains under investigation by federal prosecutors and by his union's in-house anti-corruption unit, Luskin confirmed.

Luskin would not discuss the investigation, except to say that it is pursuing - among other leads - allegations against Coia that appeared in a draft racketeering suit that the Justice Department issued late in 1994.

The subsequent negotiations with Justice occurred at a time when Coia had established himself as a top Democratic fund-raiser, whose access to the White House included an Oval Office meeting with the President and a speech by the first lady at a union function in Florida.

McCollum focused on what he called the "most disturbing" finding of his panel - "that the White House ignored repeated notifications from career law enforcement officials that Mr. Coia was the target of an organized crime investigation."

In that light, the President's and first lady's "continued close relationship with Mr. Coia . . . shows a callous indifference to both the standards of propriety expected of the nation's chief executive officer and the potential chilling effect the relationship could have on federal law enforcement officials in dealing with Mr. Coia," McCollum said in a news release.

The Democrats, led by Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York, suggested that the investigation was a political response to the AFL-CIO's decision to launch a $35-million advertising campaign against House Republicans - a charge that McCollum angrily denied.

"Such views may be politically convenient but they ignore a central truth: the impartial administration of justice is ill-served when targets of investigations by the executive branch regularly and publicly associate with the most senior officials within the same branch of government."

Nevertheless, top Justice Department officials in charge of the Laborers case, including former Asst. Atty. Gen. Jo Ann Harris, told the panel under oath last summer that they had felt no political pressure - direct or otherwise - in the Laborers case.

Finding no direct evidence of wrongdoing by the administration, the GOP "turned to the specter of 'appearances' to justify its 'investigation,' " said the Democrats.

"The evidence is clear: nothing the President did and nothing that anyone in the official family did, could in any way be construed by anybody in Justice as pressure to do, or not do something," said the Democrats.

The White House did not answer a request for comment.

But the Democrats' report paraphrased former White House Counsel Abner Mikva's hearing testimony to the effect that, by the GOP's overbroad standard, "the President shouldn't even have meetings with the speaker of the house while he is under investigation."

McCollum answered in an interview, that "the speaker has not been charged with any crime, so far as I know," and that, unlike the President, he is "not the boss of the law enforcement officials" who investigate and prosecute federal crimes. ."

McCollum's report also points to some progress that the union's in-house cleanup team has made, including the ouster of more than 30 union members and the takeover of a notoriously corrupt local in Buffalo, N.Y.

McCollum said in the interview that he saw partial parallels between the Coia case and the more recent disclosures about how major Democratic fund- raisers - many with close ties to Asian governments - enjoyed access to the President and to White House functions and facilities.

"There's a failure to understand where the lines are drawn - or a willingness to cross the lines of what I consider ethical conduct for the President of the United States," McCollum said.

Alluding to Coia's control of extensive union contributions to the Democratic Party and to Democratic House and Senate candidates, McCollum asked, "How can it be appropriate for Mr. Coia and the President, the ultimate boss of the DOJ (Department of Justice) prosecutors, to be such high-profile political allies?"

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