Laborers, U.S. Reach Pact On Cleanup

The plan includes the first rank-and-file elections but union president, Rhode Islander Arthur A. Coia, is likely to keep control.


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Atty. Gen. Janet Reno yesterday stoutly defended the Justice Department's unique agreement to end mob corruption in the Laborers International Union of North America, and top prosecutors said the union's controversial general president, Rhode Islander Arthur A. Coia, is "under scrutiny."

Reno also assured rank-and-file Laborers that Coia's political relationship with President Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton has had no effect on delicate negotiations between prosecutors and Laborers officials on how best to reform the troubled union.

"I don't know anything about relationships," Reno said. "But I know about the evidence and the law, and I'm going to do everything I can based on the evidence and the law to see that people who committed crimes are held accountable."

Reno called the press conference to announce what she described as a breakthrough in the campaign to clean up the Laborers: an agreement to hold direct rank-and-file elections for the first time in union history.

"Free and democratic elections are the best way to ensure that unions will truly serve their members," Reno said. "Nothing less is acceptable."

Still, prosecutors acknowledged that the reforms are only partial; even under the new plan, Coia and his allies are likely to remain in power into the next century.

Reno's appearance yesterday broke the government's year-long official silence on the Laborers agreement. As late as last week when reporters asked about it, her spokesman, Carl Stern, said: "That's like asking the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about a problem in a commissary."

But yesterday, Chicago's top federal prosecutor came to Washington to attend Reno's press conference at the Justice Department's Constitution Avenue headquarters - in the same wood-paneled conference room where one of Reno's predecessors, Robert F. Kennedy, declared war on the Mafia's domination of major American unions.

"Curbing the reach of organized crime is a central mission of the Justice Department," Reno said.

Flanking Reno were two signers of the Laborers agreement, James B. Burns, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, and Paul E. Coffey, chief of the Justice Department's Organized Crime and Racketeering Section.

Burns said the agreement was not necessarily an endorsement of Coia's leadership.

"I am not saying Mr. Coia should stay in charge of the union," Burns said. "Mr. Coia and others are still under scrutiny."

Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Oswald, in a telephone interview from Chicago, said the union's in-house investigators have promised to question Coia under oath about a number of issues, including a charge - laid out by the government in a draft racketeering complaint - that Coia conspired with Buffalo mobsters to pilfer benefit funds from upstate New York locals.

"At our insistence, and under our prodding, they are going to be asking Mr. Coia about these racketeering charges," Oswald said. "The union will put him under oath. We have a number of questions about him. That's something that we're very interested in."

Under the election agreement announced yesterday, Coia and the union's second-ranking officer, Rollin P. "Bud" Vinall, will be required to run in a mail-ballot election to be held by the end of the year. All 750,000 union members will be eligible to vote.

Coia and Vinall will be nominated at a convention to be held in September in Las Vegas. The rest of the powerful general executive board, now expanded to 13 members, will run under the old rules. These officers will be elected by delegates at the convention. The delegates themselves will be chosen in local elections around the country this spring.

This old system, the Justice Department has said, lent itself to abuse by a corrupt elite who allowed the mob to dominate the union for most of this century.

Hand-picked delegates

In the past, Laborers conventions were booze-drenched affairs attended by delegates hand-picked by mob-dominated locals. Burns noted that in the only contested election in Laborers history, in 1981 in Miami, Dennis Ryan, a symbolic candidate from Iowa, was "viciously beaten" on the convention floor. Coia's father, Arthur E. Coia, the union's longtime general secretary- treasurer, presided that day.

Burns conceded yesterday that any opponent would have trouble mounting a nationwide campaign against the incumbent Coia and his allies. So the new agreement virtually assures that Coia and the incumbent board members will stay in power until at least 2001.

Coia, Burns said, and "the powers that be in the union can have a fair amount of say-so" over the vice president slots.

He said the agreement calls for a mail referendum, to be held this year with election of the top two officers, that will decide whether the rank and file gets to choose the entire slate of officers in 2001.

Burns said dissatisfied union members can use the time to marshal their forces.

"They'll have a referendum they can vote on, and if they vote it in, then that would give them five years to start pulling their forces together and getting ready to go," he said.

But the Justice Department's agreement, which allows it to take over the Laborers any time it is not satisfied with the union's progress, expires in 1998. Oswald said the government will address that problem as the 1998 deadline approaches.

The election agreement is the result of months of closed-door negotiations between prosecutors and lawyers for the union. Word of the give- and-take has leaked out, and members of the Laborers' weak and fragmented opposition have flashed the details around the country via phone, fax and e- mail.

Their reaction was largely negative.

Alex Corns, a hod carrier from Daly City, Calif., said the new arrangement virtually assures that Coia and his allies will remain in power past the point when all agreements with the Justice Department expire.

"I think it's bull," Corns said. "The top two officers you're not going to beat the top two. If you could run against the regional people, then you could begin to take your regions back."

Chris White, a bus driver from Fairbanks, Alaska, who was among the dissidents beaten at the Miami convention in 1981, called the new election arrangement "token democracy."

"We want direct elections for all international officers not just a little token," White said. "Do it right, and then it'll start to straighten itself out."

White, however, said he intends to challenge Coia for the general presidency with a campaign using e-mail, a Web page on the Internet and "Dump Coia" buttons.

Negotiated three months

Reno's press conference marked a new chapter in the government's efforts to root out Mafia influence in the Laborers union.

In November 1994, Coffey, the organized crime section chief, presented Coia and the union with a 212-page draft racketeering complaint that said the union was systemically corrupt and dominated "at all levels" by organized crime. The document also accused Coia of conspiring with the Buffalo Mafia to pilfer union funds from upstate New York locals, stealing from New England benefit funds and tolerating mob influence.

The delivery of the document touched off three months of negotiations that resulted in the government dropping two key demands - for Coia's ouster and for a court-supervised takeover of the Laborers. Instead, the union was permitted to launch its own in-house purge of corruption with former federal prosecutors and FBI agents; the government reserved the right to implement a takeover if it is not satisfied with the union's efforts.

Since becoming the union's general president in 1993, Coia has cultivated a political relationship with President and Mrs. Clinton. The union has been a major contributor to Democratic causes, and Coia and Mr. Clinton have socialized.

Coia has said that Mr. Clinton personally designated deputy White House chief of staff Harold Ickes as Coia's contact with the administration. Coia said that happened during a meeting at the White House in the fall of 1994. Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Ginny Terzano said Ickes would not make himself available to answer questions about his dealings with Coia.

Reno said she was pleased with the results of the negotiations between her department and the union.

"We can move immediately with an agreement that provides for outside monitors who have been professional, skilled, very able law enforcement officials to monitor it now, without delay, without having to go to court," Reno said. But, she noted, "there is a consent decree that would provide for that court supervision if this doesn't work."

Indeed, Burns said the Laborers-style in-house cleanup may become the "wave of the future."

"The feeling here was it's the best of both worlds if you can get them to do it themselves internally," Burns said. "Corporate America is doing it. You're seeing a much greater push on internal investigations, internal regulation, internal controls of their problems. . . .Arbitration, dispute resolution - that's the way the legal system is heading."

Officials at the Laborers International headquarters did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

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