Charges against Coia could be problematic for AFL-CIO president


Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

Laborers Union President Arthur A. Coia and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney are close allies.

WASHINGTON -- In the three years since the Justice Department said Arthur A. Coia was"controlled by" the Mafia, no image has better captured the Laborers Union leader's fight for his good name than his moment of acclaim from AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, on a stage in Las Vegas last year.

"Arthur Coia is a standup union leader!" Sweeney declared to 2,100 cheering delegates, capping Coia's kickoff -- lit by lasers and buoyed by the theme from Rocky -- of the September 1996 Laborers convention that would launch Coia's victorious reelection campaign.

Only later did it emerge that Sweeney had delivered his homage to Coia in defiance of a union election-officer's ruling that it was an impermissible endorsement -- paid for by rank-and-file dues.

Sweeney's favors to the Laborers general president -- he also made Coia the first chairman of the AFL-CIO's new organizing committee, in 1996 -- may become a liability, now that Coia, a native of Rhode Island, faces fresh charges of mob associations.

Sweeney's dealings with Coia also illustrate how Sweeney, the standard-bearer of labor's bid to reverse a long slide toward political impotence, came to rely on the leader of a union with a well-documented history of violence, Mafia ties and pilferage from the funds of its blue-collar rank and file.

The spotlight on the Laborers, along with the focus on illegal financing in last year's Teamsters election, once more underlines organized-labor's troubled relations with its own black sheep.

"These scandals are sure to affect the image" that Sweeney has tried to project, "of a new,fresh, uncorrupted labor movement that stands in support of social justice," said Herman Benson, of the Association for Union Democracy, a left-leaning advocacy group based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Coia, 54, was charged Thursday by a union prosecutor with having ties to mobsters and taking kickbacks from a union vendor.

The charges grew out of an internal investigation, headed by a former federal prosecutor hired by Coia, meant to clean up corruption in the Laborers' Union.

If Coia is found guilty during a secret union disciplinary proceeding, he will lose his $254,000 job as Laborers general president.

An AFL-CIO spokeswoman said Friday that officials have yet to consider whether Coia should be permitted to keep his prestigious chairmanship of the labor federation's organizing committee.

IN SPEAKING ON COIA'S behalf at the 1996 convention, Sweeney defied the ruling of a law professor hired to ensure fair balloting.

Asked why he didn't obey the election-officer's ruling, Sweeney responded: "Why should I? I don't answer to him," saying he answered instead to officers of the AFL-CIO.

The union-paid election-monitor's job was created as part of an agreement that Coia negotiated with the Justice Department in 1995, forestalling a federal takeover of the Laborers and his own ouster. The same pact created the in-house cleanup unit that charged Coia last week.

To dissidents inside the Laborers Union, Coia's role in Sweeney's own rise suggests a possible explanation for the AFL-CIO president's support for Coia: political debt.

In February 1995 -- just as he was nailing down the reform deal with the Jusice Department -- Coia was one of about a dozen union leaders who approached then-AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland to ask that he step down.

When Kirkland refused, the union officials -- intent on reviving their politically dormant movement to battle the Republican congressional majority -- began to assemble the building blocks of a coup.

When Kirkland was nudged into retirement in the summer of 1995, his longtime second-in-command, Thomas R. Donahue, became interim president of the 13-million-member labor federation.

By the time Donahue declared his candidacy for president in the regularly scheduled fall election, Sweeney had lined up enough support -- including Coia's -- to be the front runner.

Sweeney's lead was not insurmountable, however, and Coia was among the Sweeney backers whose support was considered soft.

Donahue approached the September convention with classic challenger's strategy: to lean as hard as possible on Sweeney's shakier supporters and see whether Sweeney's slim majority could be pried apart.

As delegates gathered at the New York Sheraton, one bloc of Sweeney supporters -- the Carpenters -- bolted on cue to Donahue's camp, setting the stage for Coia to make his much-anticipated move.

Over bagels and orange juice on the morning of Oct. 23, Donahue supporters dangled a plum job in a Donahue administration as an inducement for Coia to jump Sweeney's ship. Coia savored the position of "kingmaker," as he put it during an interview that night.

"Right now you got one guy in a position to determine the whole presidency of the.AFL-CIO," Coia said. That, he said, was "not bad for a small-time, hometown guy from Providence, Rhode Island." Coia stressed, however, that his political muscle-flexing was for the benefit of his rank-and-file members, not himself.

There may have been some exaggeration in that boast. But Donahue's political consultant, Tad Devine, said the Sweeney and Donahue camps both took seriously the possibility that Coia could trigger a stampede.

The front runner worked hard to hold Coia on Oct. 24, the crucial second day of the convention. "Sweeney stayed in Athur's lap all day," Devine recalled.

IN THE END, Coia stayed with Sweeney, placing his name in nomination for the AFL-CIO presidency. Coia said at the time that no inducements were offered for his loyalty.

But Sweeney did confer on Coia a symbol of high status in his administration. Early in 1996, during the first AFL-CIO convention under President Sweeney, Coia was named chairman of the federation's new organizing committee.

Eleven months after Coia helped Sweeney get elected in New York, Sweeney returned the favor, flying to Las Vegas -- at Laborers Union expense -- to address Coia's convention.

Sweeney rejected the election-officer's ruling that six paragraphs of his 17-page speech amounted to an impermissible endorsement of Coia and read the passages anyway.

Dissidents fumed and two challengers to Coia were awarded five minutes each to address the convention the next day.

But in what dissidents took to be a clear show of the Coia camp's dominance of the convention, half the delegates staged a disruptive walkout when challenger Bernard "Barney" Scanlon, 70, of Long Island, N.Y., rose to claim his five minutes.

Scanlon failed to muster enough delegate votes to get on last fall's mail ballot for election to the union's highest office. In that vote, Coia swamped his only challenger for a five-year term as general president, a top Chicago Laborers official named Bruno Caruso.

IN LIGHT OF the charges against Coia, one passage jumps out today from Sweeney's Sept. 23, 1996, speech to the Laborers: the "entire labor movement owes you a debt for the courageous work you are doing to root out corruption in this great union."

In light of this year's political storms over campaign finances and official access-peddling, Coia's banter with Sweeney on the dais in Las Vegas jumps out with irony not intended at the time.

"Now the last time I gave a president a golf club, the media had a field day with it. It caused a whole brouhaha and controversy," Coia said, joking about how he and President Clinton had swapped gifts of fancy golf sticks just days before the Justice Department presented Coia with its racketeering suit, on Nov. 4, 1994.

"So I'm going to go one better today, John," Coia said. Delegates chuckled appreciatively as their president presented the AFL-CIO president with a handsome commemorative golf bag, engraved with the logo of The Laborers Union of North America.

The Journal-Bulletin's Web site, projo.com, includes an archive of Journal-Bulletin reports on Arthur Coia dating back to 1995, with links to related sites. Go to http://ww.projo.com/special/coia/main.htm.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company

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