The lawyer, the Laborers and White House access


Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- On Dec. 1, 1993, following reports that he was headed to the White House as a top deputy to President Clinton, lawyer Harold M. Ickes signed a $40,000 contract to represent a New Jersey-based arm of the Laborers International Union.

"I wouldn't have known Harold Ickes if I tripped over him, but we were told that he'd be our guy in the White House," recalled David Caivano, one of the union officials who hired Ickes. "Hey, that was a no-brainer for us. That was a home run."

Caivano, since forced out in a Justice Department-ordered cleanup of the mob-tainted union, griped later that Ickes did next to nothing for the New Jersey Laborers.

But Ickes, today's long-awaited witness before the Senate panel investigating the 1996 campaign-finance controversy, went on to perform invaluable services for Arthur A. Coia, 54, general president of the Laborers.

No charges of wrongdoing have sprung from Ickes's dealings with Coia, and he is unlikely to be questioned about how he helped the Rhode Island-born union leader climb the ladder of White House access.

But the story of Coia's relationship with the Clintons casts light on how campaign donations to Democrats may relate to White House entree. In Coia's case, as in the unfolding national fundraising story, Harold Ickes was the pivot man - one foot in presidential policy-making, one foot in reelection politics.

Federal prosecutors probed organized-crime connections in the Laborers Union for years before threatening to seize the union and oust Coia late in 1994. Instead, he negotiated an agreement that permitted him to preside over an in-house cleanup of the union. The Justice Department held the power to cancel the arrangement for three years, which expire in February.

Before and after the Justice Department threatened Coia with racketeering charges in November 1994, Ickes helped to dispense political favors to Coia, including an Oval Office meeting with the president in October 1994 and a speech to the union by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in February 1995.

On Jan. 5, 1995, in a celebrated memo that Ickes released from his files last winter, Coia was among the top Democratic contributors touted to Mr. Clinton as deserving of an overnight stay in the Lincoln bedroom.

"I never got the Lincoln bedroom," Coia said in an interview after the memo was released. Coia also disclaimed knowledge of any legal work by Ickes for his union.

Coia also denied that his extensive Democratic contributions were given in exchange for White House access and influence.

"Those contributions weren't for me," but for Laborers rank and file, Coia said.

According to a study by the the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, the Laborers ranked fourth among union contributors of soft money (unlike "hard" contributions to individual candidates, so-called soft money can be given to political parties virtually without limits), giving $634,588 during the 1996 election cycle, and fourth in total donations - soft money and hard contributions to candidates - with about $2.8 million.

The union thus outspent unions several times its size and ranked among such corporate giants as MCI in legally unlimited soft-money donations. That was despite the fact that the union has had financial problems for several years. Last winter, for example, it cut spending on the government-ordered cleanup of its organized-crime connections.

Ickes, 58, is named after his late father, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's storied interior secretary, a hardnosed politico and an early leader in the struggle for black civil rights.

In his own time, the younger Ickes has become one of Washington's most flamboyant characters, famously profane, tight-fisted and ferocious in his advocacy of liberal causes.

Ickes worked in the West as a cowboy before going to college at Stanford. He worked in the South as a civil-rights volunteer - where he was badly enough beaten by white attackers to lose a kidney - before settling into a career of politics and law in New York.

Practically since the beginning, Ickes has carried twin portfolios that suited him neatly for power. He is an old-school liberal Democrat, who has worked in the high councils of Democratic presidential campaigns since Eugene McCarthy's in 1968. And he is a highly paid labor lawyer for a well-connected Long Island firm.

Jack English, who was Robert F. Kennedy's New York primary campaign manager in 1968, was so impressed by Ickes's work for McCarthy that he took the young lawyer into his firm, now known as Meyer, Suozzi, English & Klein.

Ickes has toiled ever since for liberal presidential

candidates, from George McGovern to Jesse Jackson, building a reputation as a tough negotiator with a head for details. He also built a political network that includes a 25- year friendship with Mr. Clinton.

In 1992, candidate Clinton called on Ickes to steer him through the decisive New York primary, where he iced the Democratic nomination. Ickes ran President-elect Clinton's transition team in Little Rock and appeared headed for the White House as Mr. Clinton's chief of staff.

But the appointment died in an eruption of bad publicity from Ickes's parallel life in the rough-and- tumble of organized labor in New York.

Ickes took himself out of the running after critical press reports about his representation of an allegedly mob-run New York local of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees.

When a court found there was "no evidence of criminal misconduct" late in 1993, Ickes secured the job as deputy chief of staff. He started in January 1994.

Ickes apparently kept taking on law clients until just before he joined the Clinton White House. His federal financial disclosures listed the Laborers Union, Caivano's New Jersey fund and the related New York State political action committee among his pre-White House clients.

The New York and New Jersey arms were controlled at the time by David Caivano's father, Samuel J. Caivano, a longtime Coia associate who would be accused of mob associations in the Justice Department's 1994 racketeering draft and ultimately forced out of the union.

In general, Ickes's defense of his legal career has been simple and blunt: Labor lawyers defend labor unions. Ickes told congressional investigators last year that as White House "point man" for organized labor, he was the natural contact for union leaders such as Coia.

He also told investigators that he did not contract with the Laborers on his own behalf but rather as a partner in Meyer, Suozzi.

Ickes, who did not answer requests to be interviewed for this story, has also told congressional investigators that he did not recall doing any work for the Laborers.

Coia took over the Laborers less than a month after Mr. Clinton's inauguration in January 1993, and started his personal campaign for White House access right away.

In an interview two years ago, Coia described how he began by working his way into "big rooms" where the president greeted "lots of people." With well- timed political gestures and heavy Democratic campaign contributions, Coia gradually worked his way into smaller rooms where Mr. Clinton met with more select groups, Coia has said.

Early this year, Ickes - unceremoniously fired after Mr. Clinton's reelection last November - released more than 900 pages of campaign papers that document the contributions and access of many top donors - Coia included.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company
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