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.
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
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
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
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
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
"A line was crossed in this campaign
between corporate law breaking and outright terrorism," Coia
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!
The date is Nov. 4, 1994.
"Thanks for the gorgeous driver. It's a work of art."
The stationary says, "The White House."
The signature is simply, "Bill."
The date is Nov. 4, 1994.
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
"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,
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
And Coia has managed to toss old rivals
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
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
Angelo Fosco: Coia's predecessor as general
president, he rose from his deathbed to make a final plea for
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.