Coia charges intensify scrutiny of union
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON: Laborers Union officials around
the country stood up for General President Arthur A. Coia yesterday,
predicting that he will weather internal charges of taking kickbacks
and associating with mobsters.
But union dissidents and some labor commentators
said that even if the charges are proved and Coia is ousted, the
cleanup of the Laborers has a long way to go.
George E. Gudger, a Laborers vice president
who represents the Southeastern United States, criticized the
charges as coming "I feel, from people that are jealous of
the fact thatour union is growing and prospering and our
membership is behind General President Coia."
"I feel very strongly that he will be
vindicated" when the charges are adjudicated, said Gudger,
who warmly praised Coia's work to improve training programs for
Laborers -particularly those from minority groups.
Though he disparaged the charges against
Coia, Gudger said the union's decision to lodge them against its
highest official "shows that the system can work."
That echoed the longstanding defense of the
union's internal cleanup system by the former federal prosecutor
hired in 1995 to run it, Robert D. Luskin.
Luskin charged Coia Thursday with associating
with members of organized crime, allowing the mob to influence
union affairs and improperly accepting benefits from a company
doing business with the union.
The union said details of the charges will
not be made public. If Coia is found guilty in the union's secret
proceeding, he will lose his $254,000-a-year job.
"Even more important than the status
of Coia is the question of whether the Justice Department
will permit its authority over the union to expire next February,"
said Herman Benson, of the Brooklyn-based Association for Union
In negotiations in 1994, the Justice Department
was given the power to seize control of the Laborers anytime in
the next three years, if it became dissatisfied with the progress
of the cleanup.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder declined
to say during a recent news conference whether the government
would insist on extending its power to monitor the union's anticorruption
work and its progress toward democratic elections.
"If you remove Coia and the government
walks out, that's a disastrous situation," said Benson. He
said the Laborers have no strong dissident tradition and noted
that its entire ruling board of regional vice presidents was elected
-- with little opposition -- on the same slate as Coia last year.
Chuck Barnes, a Laborers vice president who
represents the Pacific Northwest Region, said he was "disappointed"
to learn that charges had been filed against the union's top officer.
"But we set up the system to look into
charges like this," Barnes said, "and we've got the
mechanism there to go through to find out whether he's innocent.
When we put the mechanism in there, it was for everybody."
Asked what the charges against Coia mean
for the union's future, Barnes said it depends on whether Coia
is found guilty. Whatever the outcome, Barnes said, the new disciplinary
system can handle it for the best interests of the rank and file.
A conservative, self-styled watchdog group,
the Virginia-based National Legal and Policy Center, sharply criticized
the union's cleanup system yesterday, arguing that the charges
against Coia appear to echo accusations made by the Justice Department
in a draft racketeering suit three years ago.
The suit was never filed. Instead, the Justice
Department negotiated the union-run disciplinary system. Ken Boehm,
of the Policy Center, said, "Justice should remove Coia from
all leadership positions and take over" the union.
"How can anyone reasonably expect an
individual tied to organized crime to rid his organization of
organized crime?" demanded Boehm.
Justice Department spokesman John Russell
would say only that the Justice Department will continue to monitor
the union's cleanup efforts.
Luskin has declined as prosecutor of the
internal charges to invoke his power to suspend Coia because the
charges mainly date to before Coia's assumption of the union presidency
An AFL-CIO spokeswoman said, meanwhile, that
the federation has yet to look into whether Coia will retain his
position as chairman of the AFL-CIO's organizing committee.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company
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