Coia Cleared Of Mob Charges

A disciplinary officer fines the Laborers general president for an improper car-financing deal, but rejects a host of other internal union charges.

Journal Washington Bureau

March 10, 1999

WASHINGTON -- Laborers Union General President Arthur A. Coia, once a top Democratic fundraiser and friend of President Clinton, was fined $100,000 yesterday for taking a ``personal benefit'' from a union vendor -- a Rhode Island car dealer who arranged a special deal for Coia to buy an exotic $450,000 Ferrari. But the union's top disciplinary officer, Peter F. Vaira, rejected a battery of other internal union charges that Coia has let organized crime figures wield influence in the 750,000-member union of construction laborers, ditch diggers, food handlers, government employees and other workers.

Vaira permitted the 55-year-old lawyer and union leader from Barrington to remain as the Laborers' top officer, a post he has held under continual federal scrutiny since February 1993.

``When the charges were first filed against me, I said we had chosen the path of reform and needed to go wherever it might lead,'' Coia declared in a news release yesterday. ``I said that justice would be served and the truth would be known.''

Coia alluded to his participation four years ago in creating an anticorruption unit in the mob-tainted union. In November 1997, that office brought charges against Coia himself that could have cost him his $254,000-a-year job. In his 108-page ruling yesterday, independent hearing officer Vaira found that Coia avoided in federal luxury taxes in the complex deal with Viking Oldsmobile-Cadillac-GMC, of Middletown, to finance the special-edition Ferrari. But Vaira said it was beyond his jurisdiction to rule on the internal union charge that Coia had committed a felony evasion of $42,000 in federal taxes.

Further, Vaira wrote that the internal prosecutors failed to provide evidence for their allegation that Coia and Carmine Carcieri, Viking's proprietor, did not pay $33,750 in Rhode Island taxes. At the time of the transaction, in 1991, Viking held the contract to lease cars for the use of Laborers officials nationwide. The in-house anticorruption unit, known as the inspector general's office, later forced the Laborers to stop doing business with Viking because of the firm's alleged ties to the mob.

A spokesman for the Justice Department, which has closely followed the in-house proceeding against Coia, would not comment on whether it is investigating the tax question or any other possible criminal charges against Coia. Coia's lawyer, Howard Gutman, declined comment on the Viking transaction. Gutman said, however, that the evidence in the case ``demonstrated overwhelmingly that Coia is not only not controlled by the mob but that the mob despises Coia.''

In a joint statement, two Justice Department officials close to the case pronounced themselves ``disappointed with the decision'' by Vaira and urged that the union's anticorruption team appeal it. ``We believe the opinion contains serious factual and legal errors,'' said James K. Robinson, the assistant attorney general for the department's criminal division in Washington, and Scott R. Lassar, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, where the original federal investigation of the Laborers was launched years ago. They did not get into specifics but a department spokesman in Chicago, Randall Samborn, said the department believes that Vaira erred by failing to follow certain key precedents that the union's appellate officer, W. Neil Eggleston, has set in a body of appeals he has heard of Vaira's cases. Samborn also said the Justice Department disagrees with Vaira about the credibility of certain witnesses called during more than 20 days of secret internal hearings that Vaira conducted in the Coia case last spring.

Union dissidents were much more outspoken.

``It's a slap on the wrist,'' Alex Corns, who leads a hod carriers local in Daly City, Calif., said of Vaira's single finding against Coia and the $100,000 fine, payable over two years. ``We really thought that the United States government was going to come in and clean up our union like they did the Teamsters,'' said Corns, asserting that the government settled instead for a cleanup by union-hired investigators. Corns said the government should exercise its authority under the 1995 agreement with the union to seize control of its affairs.

Robert D. Luskin, the former federal prosecutor who acts as the union's chief internal prosecutor, noted that the Justice Department has had continual monitorship of his unit's work and praised his office for ``vigorously'' pressing the case against Coia. Luskin said that his law firm billed the union for about $1.4 million last year, including the expense of running the investigative unit. Vaira billed about $900,000 in 1998, Luskin said. Luskin said he would decide within 10 days whether to appeal any part of Vaira's ruling. Coia's lawyer, Gutman, declined to say whether he would appeal the one finding against Coia, or the fine.

Here are some of the charges against Coia that Vaira rejected yesterday:

That Coia had an association with Raymond ``Junior'' Patriarca, the son of the legendary New England organized crime boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca and a mob leader himself.

That Coia permitted organized crime to influence the union when he appointed a Mafia-linked Chicago Laborers leader, John Serpico, to the post of union hearing officer (similar to the position Vaira holds today). Coia made that appointment as one of his first acts as general president in 1993

Vaira also rejected a charge that Coia testified falsely to the in-house investigators about his role in the Laborers award of a major car-leasing contract to Viking. He specifically wrote that Coia's acceptance of the special arrangement to buy his Ferrari was not a ``kickback.''

Yesterday's decision gave these details of the Ferrari deal for which Vaira fined Coia:

In 1991, Coia bought a special model Ferrari F40 from a Massachusetts dealer for $450,000 -- part of his hobby of investing in fancy cars. Coia made the down payment himself from the proceeds of the sale of two other exotic cars he owned. Coia was then general secretary-treasurer of the Laborers, the number-two official in the union.

But Coia obtained most of the purchase price -- $350,000 through a form of financing generally available only through car dealers, in this case Viking. He did so because Carcieri agreed to keep the car on the books in Viking's name, even though Coia was the actual owner and had the use of the car.

The arrangement also permitted Coia to enhance the investment value of the Ferrari by making it appear that it was not a ``pre-owned'' car when he was ready to sell it. That, wrote Vaira, gave the Ferrari special ``cachet'' in the exotic car market.

Coia wound up selling the car for $380,000 in 1994 -- a $70,000 loss.

``Although Coia actually lost money on the venture with Carcieri, he was offered a unique opportunity to make a large profit and received favorable terms on the purchase of the vehicle,'' Vaira wrote. ``The conflict of interest in this matter occurred at the highest level of the Union, between the Chief Financial Officer and a major vendor to'' the Laborers.

Copyright © 1999 The Providence Journal Company

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