The Worlds of Arthur Coia

Part two of a two part series

By Dean Starkman, with reports from John Mulligan and Mike Stanton

Journal-Bulletin staff writers

On a raw, windy day in March 1993, hundreds of business leaders, political figures and common laborers shuffled through the narrow streets of Providence's North End and up the stone steps of St. Ann Church. They had come to mourn the passing of a legend. "He was a good man, a gentle man, a real man," a Laborers' publication said.

In a park across the street, an FBI agent stood in the cold wind and videotaped the mourners. Arthur E. Coia was dead. The death marked the end of an era in the Laborers' International Union of North America. Coia, a member of the rough-edged older generation, had started as a sewer worker in Providence in the 1930s and rose to the second-highest job, a heartbeat from the top.Now, the torch would pass.

As his father lay dying, Arthur A. Coia had battled an illness of his own, Hodgkin's disease, a malignant form of lymphatic cancer. Debilitating chemotherapy treatments had left him weak and temporarily bald. It was a period of personal crisis that would have broken a less determined man.

While dealing with doctors and lab technicians, Coia found the strength to lobby the union's backrooms for control of the sprawling 750,000-member union.

Death was all around.

The Laborers' longtime general president, Angelo Fosco, had been sliding towards death about the same time as Coia's father. The news of Fosco's terminal illness touched off a macabre death watch and a frantic succession struggle.

Since the Laborers were founded in 1903, there had been exactly three general presidents, all from Chicago, all chosen in a secretive ritual overseen by the Chicago Syndicate.

Now Fosco, on his death bed, had tapped John Serpico, a Chicago vice president, to succeed him.

The showdown came in mid-February at a meeting of the union's general executive board during the AFL-CIO's winter meetings in Bal Harbour, Fla.

It was Coia against Serpico.

Coia had lobbied the members well. All but two were with him, and the general presidency - a prize even his father had not attained - was as good as his. Then he heard the news.

Fosco was coming to Florida."I couldn't believe it," Coia later said.

In a final spasm of will, Fosco had risen from bed, and, with intravenous tubes attached, boarded a private jet for Florida. He would make one final appeal for Serpico.

"The man was seriously sick," Coia said. "He was blown up. His whole body was distended from fluid. He couldn't pass it. I mean, his organs were breaking down." On Feb. 11, Fosco collapsed.He never made his pitch.

In command

Coia won the general presidency and then beat back cancer. Through the ordeals, he says he discovered a newfound spirituality. He says he started taking long walks along the water in Barrington with Sister Genevieve, a Carmelite nun from a nearby convent. He leavened his speeches with passages from Scripture and admonitions from the saints - he is partial to St. Augustine and the epistles of St. Paul.

And he put his personal stamp on the international.

On April 7, 1994, about 20 grim-faced men barged into a union hall in Rochester, N.Y. They told the local's president to leave the hall and hand over the keys. They had a letter from Coia. "This is to officially notify you," Coia wrote, ". . . that I took possession of the affairs and all money and property of Local Union 435."

Coia was trying to force the local into a new regional organization.

The local fought back. The insurgents opposed the move because, for one thing, the government said the organization's top two officers were associates of La Cosa Nostra.

The insurgents went to court, and won. A federal judge voided Coia's takeover and ordered the former officers reinstated.

Coia says he was only trying to correct inefficiencies in the union.

Around the country, dissidents took notice.

Inside the union, he unloaded a handful of "nonfeasant" Washington executives, and promoted protegees from Providence.

One of them, Ronald DiOrio, had just lost his job as Gov. Edward D. DiPrete's top policy aide. DiOrio had made the mistake of placing the ex-wife of a Rhode Island Mafia underboss on the Governor's Justice Commission.

DiOrio went to work obtaining grants for one of the Laborers' training funds. As a board member for the Samaritans, the suicide-intervention group, he convinced Coia to donate enough Laborers' money to keep the group's Washington chapter from going under.

The group named Coia "Samaritan of the Year."

DiOrio, meanwhile, has since been indicted on felony charges that he had obtained a Rhode Island state pension under false pretenses.The Laborers have suspended him.

Other Rhode Islanders have also benefited from Coia's rise.

The union's sizable travel budget was steered to Sophisticated Traveler, a Providence business owned by a friend, Joan Kilberg, whose husband, Arnold, runs an accounting firm that did work for Raymond J. "Junior" Patriarca, the jailed mob boss. Coia says Mrs. Kilberg has consolidated its costly travel budget and saved the union as much as $300,000. Joan Kilberg could not be reached.

And now, Laborers' members across the country arrange car leases through Viking Leasing of Middletown, owned by another Coia friend, Carmine Carcieri. The union says Carcieri won the contract through competitive bidding.Carcieri could not be reached.

Washington applauds

In Washington, where the words "Laborers' official" evoked images of pug- faced men pleading the Fifth Amendment, Coia burst on the social circuit like a star.

Coia emerged as a fresh voice for "new thinking" in organized labor. He called for free trade - heresy among labor stalwarts - and labor-management cooperation. He signed up early for the team of insurgents that toppled the listless leadership of Lane Kirkland at the AFL-CIO.

There was a new sophistication to the union's political operation. The Laborers' PACs now gave early in campaigns, when the impact was most acutely felt. A tonier set of benefits were targeted.

Coia's union loaned $100,000 to the Clinton inaugural committee, and from Jan. 1 1993, to Dec. 31, 1994, gave $368,000 in "soft money" contributions to the Democratic Party, making the union the party's sixth-leading donor.

Much of the soft-money donation was steered to a grass-roots campaign to support first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's health-care initiative.

The Laborers sponsored a performance by Le Cirque du Soleil, a dance- acrobatic troupe to benefit "Food and Friends," an AIDS support group, co- chaired by the President and the first lady. Coia pledged $100,000 in Laborers' funds to the U.S. Botanic Garden, which gave him and his wife entree to an exclusive dinner attended by the Clintons.

Crack Laborers' organizers now combed Southern backroads to rally poor white school bus drivers in Tennessee and African-American and Guatemalan poultry processors in Mississippi. When a cross was burned outside a Dothan, Ala., plant during a savage organizing struggle at Perdue Farms, Inc., Coia put himself out front.

"A line was crossed in this campaign between corporate law breaking and outright terrorism," Coia said.

The labor community applauded.

"He's trying to turn his union around," says Barbara Easterling, former secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO. "He's doing a good job showing the type of union he wants to have - one deeply involved with its members, with the community. Now the talk is of the different face of the Laborers."

"If you're invited to the White House, and your calls are returned, and you're quoted in the papers and they print your op-ed pieces, the total of that is to say, 'You're important,' " says Vic Kamber, a Washington labor consultant. "Arthur has helped create that perception, and the perception has become reality."

'Whitewater is not important'

"Dear Arthur," reads the note. "I've just heard you've become a grandfather - congratulations!
"Thanks for the gorgeous driver. It's a work of art."

The date is Nov. 4, 1994.
The stationary says, "The White House."
The signature is simply, "Bill."

The handwritten note from President Clinton marked just how far Coia had come in 18 months.

Coia and Clinton developed a strong political friendship, punctuated with frequent meetings and letters, and sealed last fall in an exchange of fancy golf clubs and a private audience in the Oval Office.

The two leaders share ideas on free trade, health care - and golf. Some have compared the two in other ways. Both are dynamic, poised and come across as warm and eager to please.
"Many people don't realize, Bill Clinton is a very personal and compassionate person - it goes back to his early childhood days," Coia says. "We've talked about it."

Coia defends the President against his critics.

"President Clinton's involvement with Whitewater is not important," Coia says. "It happened 15 years ago. Even if he did something questionable, is he OK now? We should judge people morally by what they do presently."
In October 1994 Coia and his wife were invited to an intimate dinner at the White House.

The evening was a smash.

"Thank you for a wonderful evening of dinner and entertainment," they wrote. "We must especially offer our compliments on your choice of music for the event, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing a talented saxophone player entertain the crowd."

Mob rule in New York

Last April, there was an unusual gathering at the Journal-Bulletin's offices on Fountain Street. Coia, along with a union lawyer and two media relations specialists, crowded into a conference room with five reporters, three editors and two lawyers for the newspaper. The meeting lasted more than two hours.

As tape recorders whirred, Coia made an opening statement. He said he was concerned that reporters were concentrating on negative aspects of his past and ignoring the real story, that of the revival of the Laborers.

"It's not so much me," he said. "The union has so much to offer, really, and the people that we represent have so much to offer. Sure I've endured a lot of thick-skinned issues in my life. (But) I'm talking about trying to make people aware of what this union is. It's not a union back in the '50's and '60's. It's a unique organization that represents people that want to move forward."

Coia said the paper should look into how he had cleaned up the New York Laborers' affiliates, known as the Mason Tenders.

The union lawyer, Robert D. Luskin, asked if had any reporters had spoken to prosecutors in New York.

The reporters looked at each other.

"You ought to," Luskin said. "And I will give you a name: Allan Taffet, who is deputy chief of the civil division. The number is 212-385-6349 . . . Somebody ought to call Allan and ask him how our union responded to that suit up there and how serious he believes we are about cooperating with the government cleanup program."

The Greater New York Mason Tenders District Council represents about 6,000 asbestos workers, brick haulers and common laborers in 12 locals. Until last year the Mason Tenders were the shame of organized labor. The mob ruled the New York union brazenly, insolently, brutally.

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. They took them from builders in return for allowing the use of cheap, nonunion workers. They took them from accountants, lawyers, financial advisers, doctors, dentists, even a chiropractor who peddled a wacky medical procedure called the "Biological and Endocrine System Tie-in Test."

According to Newsday, the New York newspaper, union officials used benefit funds to buy dilapidated buildings from mobsters at grossly inflated prices. After the Laborers bought one building in Brooklyn, the walls collapsed.

"Pension Fund's Spending Spree," blared one headline.

Besides looting union funds, the mob also picked union officers.

In 1989, after an official of Queen's Local 46 was convicted of racketeering, Coia and two other top international executives, sent the U.S. Labor Department a document assuring the government that the local was being cleaned up.

"Honest and effective representation is finally being provided," Coia and the others wrote.

But government evidence, including sworn statements and wiretaps, later showed that the president of the local had actually been installed by the Luchese family.

There is no evidence Coia knew the mob was still meddling in Local 46.

Tense discussions

Over the years, the office of U.S. attorney for New York's southern district has gained a reputation as an elite, hard-driving operation that acts sometimes beyond the reach even of Justice Department superiors in Washington.

That reputation was magnified during the larger-than-life Rudolph Guiliani era, when federal agents conducted live-on-TV arrests of Wall Street bond traders and New York tabloids blared tales of G-men dogging the mob with an almost religious fervor.

In 1989 and 1990, the office turned its sights on the Mason Tenders.They won a string of prosecutions smashing the mob's grip. A conga line of union officers weaved into court to admit their misdeeds.

Trial evidence showed the direct involvement of top mobsters, including Gambino chieftain Paul Castellano, his successor, John Gotti, and henchman- turned-witness Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.

The convictions were trumpeted in the press.

In 1993, the president of the entire Mason Tenders District Council pleaded guilty to one of the largest frauds in union history.For the government, that was the last straw. Prosecutors announced they intended to file a civil racketeering suit to take over the entire Mason Tenders.

Allan N. Taffet, deputy chief of the civil division, was named to lead the effort. Taffet does not fit the swashbuckling mold. Sitting at his desk, in front of a sweeping view of Lower Manhattan, Taffet declines to talk about the Mason Tenders much beyond what is already in the public record.

In December 1993, Taffet received a visit from David Elbaor, a representative of Arthur Coia, the union's general president of 10 months. What Taffet told Coia's representative would later be summarized in an opinion by a federal judge, Robert W. Sweet.

Taffet, according to Sweet, asked "whether and when" the international would impose a trusteeship to end the "systematic corruption" of the Mason Tenders. Elbaor didn't answer right away. The judge wrote that Elbaor contacted Taffet three or four more times. Sweet ruled that Elbaor and Coia knew about the corruption in New York - and about Taffet's "sense" that Coia and the international should take over the New York operation.

But prosecutors didn't wait for Coia.

"It appeared to us," Taffet says, "nothing meaningful would happen."

On Sept. 8, Taffet filed suit. In a blistering 110-count complaint, the government recounted the scams, extortions, beatings, and criminal convictions.And it lambasted the international's sham trusteeships.

A moment with Mrs. Clinton

Two months later, the government announced a new target. This time Coia himself was in the cross-hairs.

On Nov. 4 - the same day President Clinton dashed off a note thanking Coia for the golf club - the Justice Department's Washington and Chicago offices delivered a 212-page draft racketeering complaint to the union.

The draft complaint alleged, among other charges, that Coia had collaborated with the Mafia, tried to misdirect union funds in Rochester and had suppressed union dissidents. The government said it intended to take over the entire international and throw Coia out. For Coia, this was a dark moment: "The worst of times," he calls it.But he had survived this long.

He had one more fight.

The executive suite of the Laborers' Art Deco headquarters on Washington's 16th Street spun into a frenzy of activity.

Coia hired the powerhouse law firm of Williams & Connelly, the super- connected pillar of the Washington establishment, and retained as his personal attorney Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., who had gained worldwide fame defending Oliver North during the Iran-contra hearings.

He hired Luskin, a former federal prosecutor, to negotiate with the Justice Department.

He called an emergency meeting of the executive board, and on Nov. 9, the board threw the Mason Tenders overboard. The international took control, although it had to report to a federal judge.

"The district council is finished," Coia wrote to a New York executive. "What is at stake is our whole international."

In Washington, there were angry, table-pounding board meetings. Old guard members, Serpico of Chicago and the New York chief, Samuel J. Caivano, were in open revolt. They refused to go along with reforms demanded by the Justice Department.

Last Jan. 18, Coia suspended them. Nasty words were exchanged and the two old guard members stormed out.

Caivano sued. Serpico sued. The Mason Tenders sued. They all claimed that Coia, during private negotiations with the government, threw them to the wolves to save himself.

Meanwhile, Coia's lawyers continued to negotiate with the Justice Department. They refused to consider Coia's resignation and promised a scorched-earth fight if the government tried to take over. One session, in the office of the department's criminal division chief, Jo Ann Harris, saw 20 lawyers argue for hours.

Word of the investigation reached the White House.

In return for Coia's support of Clinton administration initiatives, especially its health-care fight, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had accepted Coia's invitation to speak at the union's Tri-Fund Conference in Florida on Feb. 6.

Mrs. Clinton kept the engagement. A deputy chief of staff advised her to avoid "private meetings or conversations with Mr. Coia" because he was "currently under investigation," according to a White House statement.

But Coia says he met the first lady in a waiting room before the speech. There was an awkward moment. "I want you to know that we are, have taken over that problem in New York City,' " Coia recalls telling her.Mrs. Clinton said she hadn't heard about it, Coia says. The conversation drifted to different subjects. A week later, on Feb. 13, the Justice Department issued a press release.

There was a deal.

'Like out of the movies'

The battles are winding down. The Mason Tenders have been crushed. The old rivals are on their way out.

Coia has prevailed.

True, he lost a minor point when Judge Sweet ruled that Coia, in the frenzy of November, had seized the Mason Tenders improperly, using emergency powers. Sweet wrote that Coia had long known about corruption in New York, but acted only after learning his own job was at stake.

"The record compels the inference," Sweet wrote, "that avoidance of his own prosecution was at least one motive for Coia's decision."

But the issue was academic. The international had the right to take over after due process, Sweet ruled. Clearly, the Mason Tenders deserved it, and today prosecutors are pleased with the international's efforts.

Coia was able to fend off the Justice Department with a number of concessions. He agreed to restore union democracy and to carry out an anti- corruption campaign led by a team of former FBI agents and federal prosecutors.

Today, Coia boasts that reform was his idea. "This is my process," he says, "my suggestion, my development and my implementation of it. Mine."

A common refrain among Coia's critics is that any reform program led by Coia is like a fox guarding a henhouse. Such criticism exasperates Coia. He says he is as susceptible to investigation as anyone.

And Coia has managed to toss old rivals overboard.

Last spring, it was Serpico's turn.

On May 19, Coia flew to Chicago to testify at an internal disciplinary hearing. Serpico had been charged with violating a brand new union code against consorting with the mob.

At the hearing in Chicago, Coia spoke at length about his old colleague under direct examination from Luskin, the union lawyer.

Coia testified that Serpico had caught him off guard by steering him to that surprise meeting with Solano, the Chicago mob chieftain.

Coia said he had heard rumors of mob influence in the Laborers and read the report of the President's Commission on Organized Crime, but this was his first actual proof.Coia said the experience left him shaken.

"The rumor of the organized crime committee report, the whole thing became a reality," he said. "It was something - I don't know - like out of the movies. It was a matter of fact . . . This group of people was running the show."

The hearing broke for the day in the middle of Coia's testimony. Serpico's lawyer, Lydon, was looking forward to cross-examining Coia about his story.

Lydon wanted to ask why - even after the dramatic encounter at O'Hare - Coia had named Serpico a union "hearing officer," a prestigious job responsible for resolving members' complaints, including those about mob influence.

But, before Coia could return to the witness stand, the disciplinary case was settled.Serpico voluntarily left the executive board and was allowed to retire quietly this year.

Coia never faced that cross-examination.By agreement of the parties, the file was sealed.


Arthur E. Coia: Hundreds attended the 1993 funeral of the Laborers leader.

Arthur A. Coia: The son of Arthur E. Coia, he outmaneuvering a Chicago vice president to win the general presidency.

Angelo Fosco: Coia's predecessor as general president, he rose from his deathbed to make a final plea for Coia's rival.

President Clinton: He exchanged letters and golf clubs with Coia and had the Coias to dinner.

Hillary Rodham Clinton: Coia says he bumped into her at a Laborers event in Florida just as negotiations between the Laborers and the Justice Department reached a critical point.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.

Return to Laborers.org

All original work Copyright Laborers.org 1998. All rights reserved.