Coia charges intensify scrutiny of union


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 Democracy.

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 in 1993.

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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