Union moves to take over 'corrupt' Buffalo local

The Laborers International Union, headed by Rhode Islander Arthur Coia, says the Mafia has the union in its grip.


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Arthur A. Coia, general president of the Laborers International Union of North America, has moved to take over a local in Buffalo, N.Y., that union investigators say has been "influenced, if not directly controlled" by the Mafia for at least 20 years.

The takeover bid is the latest step in an in-house campaign "to rid (the Laborers) of corrupt elements," Coia said.

Coia's action is significant because only last year he was the target of Justice Department prosecutors, who accused him of collaborating with organized crime figures around the country, including those in Buffalo.

Indeed, a Justice Department document last year accused Coia of trying to funnel union funds to the same Mafia family that Coia's union is now moving against.

Robert D. Luskin, a former federal prosecutor overseeing the union's anticorruption effort, notified members of Local 210 last week that the international intended to oust the local's officers and put a trustee in charge. The trustee was not named.

In an internal union complaint, Luskin said that Buffalo's Todaro crime family has held the local in its grip for more than 20 years. The mob, the complaint said, doled out jobs to Mafia members and their relatives, coerced employers into tolerating no-show employees, permitted loan-sharking and other illegal activies on job sites, and extracted kickbacks from contractors who in turn were allowed to hire cheaper, nonunion labor.

Luskin's complaint also says the Todaro family - long headed by Joseph A. Todaro Sr.and his son, Joseph Jr. - has drained benefit funds and perverted union democracy by handpicking local officers and strong-arming its 2,000 rank-and-file members into silence.

On Jan. 8, the international will argue its complaint at an internal hearing before Peter F. Vaira, a union hearing officer and also a former federal prosecutor, who will decide whether a trusteeship is warranted. The local will have an opportunity to contest Luskin's complaint.

Officers of Local 210 have already gone to federal court to challenge the international's anticorruption campaign. The local claims that Coia and the international overstepped their authority by adopting a new ethics procedure without a vote of the rank and file.

Local officials could not be reached yesterday.

"The existence of such wrongful influence over the affairs of Local 210 is intolerable," Luskin said in his letter to Local 210.

In a press release, Coia said the international's action "is a major step along the path" of reforming the union.

"The workers in Buffalo deserve a union that is run entirely for their benefit, and we will do whatever is necessary to make that happen," he added.

Only 13 months ago, Coia was the target of an anticorruption campaign, this one brought by the Justice Department.

On Nov. 4, 1994, a federal prosecutor delivered a 212-page document that, among other charges, alleged that Coia has long associated with organized crime figures and tolerated mob corruption in his union.

The document, a draft of a civil racketeering complaint, also said that from 1986 to July 1994, Coia conspired with the Todaro crime family to pilfer benefit funds of upstate New York locals.

The document said Coia used "actual and threatened force, violence and . . . fear of economic harm" to force independent-minded locals under the control of a regional organization headed by two associates of the Mafia.

One of Coia's alleged co-conspirators, according to the government document, was Peter Gerace, the son-in-law of the senior Todaro.

The document said the mob-controlled regional organization would be used to reward mob-connected contractors, provide jobs to Buffalo mobsters and pay for "unnecessary or extravagant travel" by union officers.

Prosecutors demanded that Coia be ousted from the international and that a federal court take control.

But during closed-door negotiations over three months, the Justice Department backed off. On Feb. 13, it signed an agreement that left Coia in place and allows the union to police itself.

The Justice Department has never explained why it chose not to pursue the allegations against Coia.

Coia, 52, a Rhode Islander who became general president in February 1993, has denied the government's allegations.

Yesterday, he said that his moves in upstate New York had been intended only to modernized and streamline the union.

"I do not even know the people there at Local 210, personally or professionally," Coia said.

He added that he does not know either Todaro.

Luskin said the allegations against Local 210 have "nothing to do with" the government's charges against Coia.

Luskin said, however, that union investigators are "pursuing all" allegations made by the government, plus other leads.

At a weekly press briefing, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno on Thursday declined to comment on the union's actions in Buffalo.

Reno said she was unfamiliar with the details of the case but promised to have the responsible officials look into it.

Justice Department spokesman John Russell said yesterday that the department is monitoring the union's compliance with the Feb. 13 agreement.

"We routinely monitor them," Russell said. "We continually watch everybody, including Coia."

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