Local union members stand by Coia


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE -- "It's bull."

"It's a slight on the Italians."

"I think it's time to leave him alone."

Across Providence yesterday, that's how local members of the Laborers' International Union of North America reacted to an accusation that Arthur A. Coia, president of their union and a man many call a friend, had associated with mobsters and received kickbacks from a union vendor.

From the Providence Place mall construction site to the city public-works garage to City Hall offices, rank-and-file members came to the defense of Coia, the Rhode Islander who rose to head the nation's biggest union, with 750,000 members.

Not one member expressed concern or chagrin over charges filed Thursday by a former federal prosecutor hired by Coia in 1995 to clean up his corrupt union. If Coia is found guilty in a secret union disciplinary proceeding, he would be ousted from the Laborers'$254,000-a-year presidency.

In fact, rank-and-file members directed their only rebukes at the news media, particularly the Journal-Bulletin, which has published stories reporting that Coia, his father, and the union have ties to the Mafia.

In the view of several union members, Coia is a decent, honest and dedicated leader who has, directly or indirectly, made sure they can put bread on their tables, don't get pushed around by management and have a good pension when they retire.

"I've been on the streets all my life," said Damian Costantino, a welder at the city Public Works Department, a Federal Hill resident and member of Local 1033, which represents about 1,000 municipal employees. "He's not connected with the mob. If they think the mob goes in and tells this guy what to do, they're nuts."

Nuts or not, that's essentially what disciplinary charges filed in Washington, D.C., by Robert D. Luskin, a former U.S. Justice Department lawyer, allege.

The charges against Coia, according to a union statement, assert that between 1986 and 1993, he "knowingly associated with members of organized crime, knowingly permitted organized-crime members to influence the affairs of the LIUNA, breached his constitutional and fiduciary duties to the union and improperly accepted benefits from a LIUNA service provider."

Coia, 54, of Barrington, has been a target of three federal grand-jury investigations in Washington, Boston, and Rochester, N.Y., and denies the latest allegations. The charges will be judged by a union hearing officer, Peter F. Vaira, a former U.S. attorney in Philadelphia.

In recent years, Coia has hobnobbed with President Clinton and won accolades for helping to revive the American labor movement. But he has been dogged by allegations that he and

his now-deceased father, Arthur E. Coia, the secretary treasurer of the Laborers' union, have consorted with mobsters.

In late 1994, the Justice Department delivered a thick draft complaint to his office in Washington accusing Coia and his union of being mob-controlled. Federal prosecutors called for a government takeover akin to the seizure of the Teamsters.

Coia countered by hiring Luskin and other leading Washington lawyers to negotiate with the Justice Department. That led to an unprecedented agreement in 1995 allowing Coia to remain at the helm while Luskin and other former prosecutors and the FBI cleaned up the union.

It was that cleanup that led to the latest accusation.

But from the vantage point of local union members, Coia is a good guy who never lost the common touch, whose associations with mobsters are, at worst, purely coincidental, and whose union has vigorously represented them.

Wilbur W. Jennings Jr., the deputy superintendent of public works, used the word "friend" to describe both Coia and his father.

Jennings first met the elder Coia in the late 1960s, when Jennings was working at a Goodyear garage on Broad Street. Jennings would service Coia's new General Motors cars. He did such a dandy job, he said, that whenever the elegantly dressed union official would come by with his driver, he'd ask specifically for Jennings.

"He was a nice fella," Jennings said. "He'd say, `Mr. Jennings, take care of my car.' "

After Jennings began working for Public Works in 1975 and joined the union, he said, the elder Coia introduced him to Coia's son as "our friend . . . . He serviced our car."

Over the years, Jennings said, the younger Coia returned the kindness. When Jennings was fired in 1989 -- in retribution, he maintains, for his unsuccessful campaigns to unseat House Speaker Matthew J. Smith -- the union helped him regain his job.

"He is a straight-up guy," Jennings, 53, said of the Laborers' president.

Sitting with Jennings in a drab dispatcher's office at the Public Works garage on Ernest Street, Costantino said it's common knowledge that the elder Coia was friendly with the late New England mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca. But he found nothing sinister about that; Rhode Island is so small, powerful men are bound to rub shoulders.

Such associations raise eyebrows, he said, because of prejudice against Italians and exaggerated fears about the Mafia.

"Let's put it this way: If a Fortune 500 guy is talking to a wiseguy, do you think they'd make a big deal out of it?" said Costantino, a brother of state Rep. Steven M. Costantino.

"It's the Italian name."

What counted more, Costantino said, was how well the union represents its members, and he gave Local 1033 high marks. Local members have an excellent pension and get legal assistance if they need it.

In addition to blue-collar workers, the Laborers' union represents office workers at City Hall. Several rank-and-file members at the Board of Canvassers and Registration said they hadn't read news reports of the latest accusuations against Coia and weren't inclined to.

Asked whether she was troubled that Coia allegedly has ties to mobsters, one woman said: "Doesn't everybody in Rhode Island?"

A couple of miles away at the dirt-packed construction site of the Providence Place mall, several burly men wearing hard hats expressed similar views.

Dick Mandarini, a union steward whose company, New England Foundation, is laying concrete footings for the mall, dismissed the allegations as "bull" and denounced Journal-Bulletin stories about Coia.

Mandarini, a Cranston resident who belongs to Local 271 of the Laborers' union, contended that the accusations are a "set-up" -- perhaps by the federal government -- to oust Coia because he has been such an effective union leader.

Like other union members, Mandarini had only good things to say about his embattled president.

"He's a nice guy," he said.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company

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