10.23.97 07:07:54

Laborers to charge Coia with ethics breach


Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Laborers Union's internal anticorruption unit is preparing to charge the man who created it, General President Arthur A. Coia, with tolerating mob influence in the union and accepting impermissible gratuities.

A Justice Department source confirmed that Robert D. Luskin, the lawyer for the union board, who also acts as the Laborers internal prosecutor, has informed Justice that allegations of violations of the union's ethics code will be filed against Coia by Oct. 31.

Among the internal allegations now being prepared are some that echo charges against Coia that go back as far as November 1994, when the Justice Department drafted a racketeering suit against the union. It is not yet clear how Luskin will back up the allegations of mob ties and gratuities. Coia, the Rhode Island-bred son of a hard-nosed
Laborers chieftain, could lose his $254,000-a-year job and his union card if such charges are proved.

That would mark a stunning fall for the well-heeled, 54-year-old lawyer from Barrington, who took over the 750,000-member union of waste-haulers, municipal employees construction workers and auto-part assemblers early in 1993.

Coia has consistently denied any wrongdoing. A union spokesman referred questions to Luskin and to Coia's personal lawyer, Howard Gutman, neither of whom could be reached yesterday.

Atty. Gen. Janet Reno's spokesman, Bert Brandenburg, declined comment on the Coia case, except to say, ``the Justice Department is continuing its vigorous oversight'' of the Laborers Union.

Coia has made himself one of labor's top contributors to the Democratic Party, while cultivating White House access that led to friendship and meetings with President Clinton,culminating in an exchange of fancy golf clubs as gifts.

Along the way, Coia has shown remarkable durability, most notably by staving off a draft racketeering complaint presented to him by the Justice Department in November 1994.

The document included allegations that Coia had associated with mobsters, tolerated organized crime influence in the union and tried to put an upstate New York Laborers unit under control of a Buffalo organized crime family.

The Justice Department sought to oust Coia and to take over the corrupt union, in much the same way it had earlier seized control of the Teamsters.

Instead, Coia and his legal team negotiated an unprecedented agreement with the government, signed in February 1995, that permitted him to keep his job while the union attempted to purge itself of organized crime influence. For that purpose, the union created a team of former FBI agents and federal prosecutors and enacted a new ethics code with a quasi-judicial system of hearings for prosecuting complaints internally.

The union acknowledged its legacy of corruption and ceded to the government for three years the power to cancel the arrangement and seize the union at any time if the Justice Department found the in-house cleanup unsatisfactory.

Prosecutors have long asserted that Coia inherited a legacy of organized-crime ties from his father, Arthur E. Coia, former secretary-treasurer of the Laborers. The elder Coia acknowledged a lifelong acquaintance with the late New England organized-crime boss,

Raymond L. S. Patriarca, who was indicted along with both Coias in an alleged insurance-kickback scheme in the late 1980s. A judge later ruled that the statute of limitations had run out on the charges.

The pact with the government was heavily criticized by Laborers dissidents, who charged that an investigative unit paid by the union and controlled by Coia's executive board would be no better than ``the fox guarding the chicken house.''

Congressional Republicans took note of such criticism -- plus Coia's record of generous contributions to the Democrats and White House ties, exemplified by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's appearance with Coia at a Laborers convention while he was still negotiating his 1995 pact with the Justice Department.

In July 1996, the House Judiciary Committee's crime subcommittee held investigative hearings into the Laborers-Justice pact. That probe turned up some evidence that high-level federal prosecutors had tried in vain to steer the Clintons away from Coia during the months before the Justice Department presented its charges in 1994.

But is has never been clear whether that warning reached the Clintons. A panel of top-ranking Justice Department officials testified in defense of their negotiation of an internal cleanup for the Laborers. They also swore that no political influence had been brought to bear on their bargaining with Coia.

The prosecutors also indicated that they would pursue any allegations against Coia or other union officials. Prosecutors in Boston, Washington and upstate New York have since continued to investigate Coia.

The Republicans who ran the investigation concluded that the Justice-Laborers arrangement carried the perception of a conflict of interest, but they found no proof that it had been politically tainted.

As a political matter, Democrats and Laborers defenders had some success in portraying the Republican-run hearings as an election-year vendetta against Mr. Clinton and organized labor.

Meanwhile, the internal cleanup unit, known as the inspector general's office, has mounted corruption cases against some of the most notorious nests of organized crime in the Laborers. Charges have been lodged against dozens of individuals, as well as a Buffalo local long tied to a Mafia family there and a Chicago union council whose mob associates had a direct pipeline for decades to Laborers headquarters in Washington.

Coia himself has boasted repeatedly of the anticorruption initiative undertaken on his watch-- along with the democratic election reforms that were part of the agreement with Justice.

Thirteen months ago in Las Vegas, as federal agents looked on, Coia presided in triumph over a Laborers convention that overwhelmingly nominated him for reelection, gave him a raise of more than $50,000 and elected all of his allies on the ``Unity Slate'' of candidates for top union offices.

Later last fall, Coia was handily reelected in the first direct, secret ballot in Laborers history.He and his allies looked forward to another five years in power, with the Justice Department's authority over them due to expire in February 1998.

More quietly, according to sources in the union and the Justice Department, the union inspector general and federal prosecutors have continued their probe of Coia.

Federal prosecutors have long been interested in one of Coia's first appointments after he became general president in 1994, when he named John Serpico, of Chicago, to a key job as a union hearing officer. Coia said in a sworn deposition in May 1995 that he had known since 1989 that Serpico had the blessing of Chicago Mafia leaders for high office in the Laborers.

Details of the allegations of impermissible gratuities are also unclear. But during the 1996 House hearings, Laborers Inspector General W. Douglas Gow testified that he was pressing the union to stop doing business with two Rhode Island companies because of their possible ties to organized crime.

Those vendors were Sophisticated Traveler, a Providence travel agency, and Viking Oldsmobile-Cadillac, of Middletown.

Gow, the former FBI man who is chief internal investigator, said shortly after the pact with the union was signed in 1995 that the draft racketeering suit ``is our road map'' to potential charges against members.

After a federal judge asked in April 1995, ``Why wasn't Coia removed?'' Luskin explained in a courthouse interview that he had given Coia emphatic warnings that allegations against him could be pursued by the internal investigators.

Luskin said he had told Coia during the negotiations with Justice, ``Arthur, if you have anything to hide, don't go down this road.''

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