Coia probe may focus attention on Clinton ties

Administration suggest that charges against the Laborers Union president would vindicate the Justice Department's efforts to purge the union of organized-crime influence.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Reports of pending ethics charges against

Laborers Union General President Arthur A. Coia piqued the interest yesterday of congressional investigators probing President Clinton's campaign finances.

The Journal-Bulletin and the New York Times reported yesterday that the union's internal anticorruption unit has told the Justice Department it will charge Coia this month with tolerating Mafia influence in the union and with accepting improper gratuities.

Coia's Washington lawyer, Howard Gutman, said yesterday, "My understanding is that there has been no decision one way or the other on whether to charge" Coia.

Justice Department officials have said, however, that the former federal prosecutor in charge of the union's internal investigations, Robert D. Luskin, has notified the department of plans to file the internal charges by Oct. 31.

Officials suggested that charges against Coia would vindicate the Justice Department's efforts to purge the Laborers Union of organized-crime influence.

The stories about Coia got the attention of congressional investigators who have been aware of the Rhode Island-born labor leader's extensive campaign contributions to the Democratic Party. But they have not made his ties to the Clinton White House a high investigative priority.

Investigative sources on Capitol Hill said yesterday that charges against Coia may increase the likelihood that his fundraising for the Democratic Party and his dealings with Mr.Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes will once again become a focus of congressional probes.

But the sources stressed that there are serious practical obstacles to renewed digging into the Coia case - to which a House subcommittee devoted two days of investigative hearings last year.

For example, Sen. Fred Thompson's special investigation into campaign finances faces a Dec. 31 deadline to close up shop.

That's a tight schedule for wrapping up the inquiries already launched - from Vice President Al Gore's controversial fundraiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles to the sudden discovery of videotapes of White House coffees for big donors.

It's not clear that Thompson has the time to open an inquiry into Coia - or is willing to buck the likely Democratic opposition to such an investigation.

Nor is it clear whether the Coia case fits the Thompson committee's mandate to investigate fundraising for the 1996 elections. Most of Coia's highest-level contacts with Mr. Clinton took place in 1994. They began to decline after November 1994, when the Justice Department presented him with a 212-page draft racketeering suit that charged him with mob associations and sought a takeover of the union.

Instead, Coia negotiated a February 1995 agreement under which the Justice Department let him preside over an in-house cleanup of his mob-tainted union. The Justice Department retained the right - until February - to cancel the deal, oust Coia and seize control of the Laborers if it decided the internal purge wasn't working.

But Sen. Don Nickles, D-Okla., one of the Thompson committee's most aggressive questioners, said in an interview yesterday, "Mr. Coia gave all this money to the Democrats - hundreds of thousands of dollars - and all of a sudden this deal came out that basically had all the charges against him dropped. Mrs.Clinton gives a speech to the union at the same time and Mr. Coia's on the overnight list, he's on the plane list, he's on the golf-club list," said Nickles.

"It just looks bad. It looks suspicious. I'm interested in looking at it." Coia - who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing - exchanged gifts of fancy golf clubs with Mr. Clinton some days before the Justice Department came knocking. But Coia noted in an interview this year that he declined invitations to fly on Air Force One with Mr. Clinton and never received an invitation - suggested by a top Clinton campaign official - to sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.

Thompson, R-Tenn., declined to comment yesterday on whether he wants to look further into the Coia case.

But one Republican congressional staffer said, "Chairman Thompson and his staff are looking at the money the Laborers gave and if he can't get into it, the House will. The Coia case will be pursued."

Meanwhile yesterday, Justice Department officials said they will continue to press the Laborers internal investigators to clean up the union. They pointed to the pending charges against Coia as evidence that its method of cleaning up the union is getting results.

Justice Department spokesman John Russell said that "career attorneys in the Organized Crime Section have closely monitored" the Laborers-Justice cleanup agreement "and we feel that it suits its purpose in trying to make sure that there's no organized crime influence in the union."

Russell said the Justice Department professionals have prodded Luskin, the union-hired lawyer who acts as internal prosecutor, to pursue allegations against Coia.

At a news conference yesterday, Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder avoided direct comment on some key questions that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno could face as the Coia case unfolds.

Holder was asked, in light of yesterday's stories, whether the Justice Department "is going to drop your criminal investigation of Mr. Coia on these charges," if Coia resigns or is ousted.

"I can't really comment on that other than to say that the Justice Department will continue to vigorously do that which we are supposed to do under the terms" of the agreement with the union, said Holder, the number-two official at Justice, sitting in yesterday for the traveling Reno.

Holder declined comment on the question of whether Coia's contributions to the Democratic Party and his ties to Mr. Clinton could be proper territory for an independent counsel to investigate.

Holder declined to answer what he called a "what-if" question about whether the Justice Department would let its power to seize the union lapse next February.

"Once the Justice Department pulls out its influence over us, we'll just go back to business as usual," said Chris White, a Fairbanks, Alaska, bus driver and member of the Laborers small dissident movement.

White said Coia may rightly be able to claim some successes for his in- house anticorruption program, particularly the efforts to remove mob influence from Laborers units in Chicago and Buffalo.

But White said the rank-and-file Laborer has yet to taste the promised benefits of reform in such key arenas as the method of doling out jobs at the local hiring hall.

"The local bosses still have the power to keep out the dissident," White said.

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