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.
By DEAN STARKMAN and JOHN E. MULLIGAN
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.
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