Election officer urges continued oversight of Laborers' union

The U.S. Justice Department's role is due to end next year.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- An outside election officer has urged the federal government to extend its oversight of the corruption-plagued Laborers' International Union of North America beyond its scheduled expiration date next year.

The Laborers' union and its president, Arthur A. Coia, of Rhode Island, have been operating since 1995 under a unique agreement that allows the union to oversee a cleanup of pervasive Mafia influence and corrupt practices.

Under the agreement, which ends in February 1998, the U.S. Justice Department has the right to seize control of the Laborers' union and oust Coia - whom federal prosecutors had identified as a mob puppet - if authorities are dissatisfied with the pace of reform.

Coia, who has become a powerful national labor figure in Washington and a prominent political supporter of President Clinton and the Democratic Party, said he hopes to put the government supervision behind him next year.

But Stephen B. Goldberg, a Northwestern University law professor hired as an outside election officer, says that democratic reform of the Laborers' union will fail unless the federal government continues its supervision at least through the next union-wide election in 2001.

IN A 57-PAGE report delivered recently to the union and the Justice Department, Goldberg urged several tough new steps to open up union elections, including expanded government monitoring of local union elections scheduled around the country this year.

Last year's balloting for international officers, including Coia's reelection, "constituted the first hesitant steps on the road" to union democracy, Goldberg wrote.

But, Goldberg warned in an interview, "if nothing else happens, if this report is just tossed aside," then the federally mandated cleanup "will really not have accomplished much."

"We will have just laid the first brick" of a foundation for reform, he said.

In late 1994, federal prosecutors threatened to seize control of the union and oust Coia, accusing him of conspiring to help the Mafia pilfer union benefit funds and of tolerating mob influence.

Coia denied the charges and staved off a government takeover by offering to oversee his own internal reforms. In February 1995, the Justice Department signed a three-year agreement, under which federal prosecutors maintain their oversight.

Goldberg, chosen by the union and the Justice Department and paid by the union, applauded reform efforts thus far, but says it has not been enough. Goldberg said he will not continue in the job because he wants to avoid any appearance that he is beholden to the union.

ATTY. GEN. JANET RENO said recently that prosecutors are examining Goldberg's report and considering his recommendations. Union officials are also reviewing the report and have no response yet to the recommendations, according to spokesman David Rasco.

Coia said in an interview recently, "I would hope that (the agreement) would conclude, because everything's going along well. Reform will still continue."

Another view of the pace of Coia's reform was reflected in a dispute last year over election reform. The Laborers' union consented to certain electoral reforms only after the government threatened to take over the union.

Laborers' union dissenters said the reform movement will sink without continued government support, but doubt the Justice Department will stay on the case beyond 1998.

"I really think they're going to walk out of here in 1998," said Alex Corns, a hod carrier from Daly City, Calif., and an unsuccessful candidate for international vice president last fall.

Ron Nobili, business manager of Laborers' Local 665 in Bridgeport, Conn., said that Coia's forces outmaneuvered the Justice Department in the original negotiations for last year's limited election reforms.

"A lot of momentum has been lost" already because it was clear from the start that federal enforcement power would only last for one election cycle, Nobili said. "Just to signal that they'd be off the case in 1998 - that had a chilling effect."

In a union with the Laborers' history of corruption and violent intimidation, "the rank and file are still scared," Nobili said. At last September's Laborers' convention in Las Vegas, "The elections were somewhat more democratic, yes, but there were still the same familiar faces."

Those familiar faces made it more difficult for grass-roots candidates to mount challenges by imposing deadlines, regional vote quotas and other procedural hurdles that Goldberg has proposed scrapping.

When the convention was over, Coia's forces had prevailed in raising dues, cutting benefits, voting to build Coia a new home in Washington and giving Coia a 19 percent pay raise, to $250,000. (The union's new ethics rules had forced Coia to give up some income from his Providence law firm, which does business with his union.)

GOLDBERG NOTED in his report that the first secret ballots in Laborers' history spurred some "lively campaigning" and a few contested elections. But every candidate on Coia's slate was elected.

Without supervision of voting in the locals between now and the next international elections in 2001, he said, "the Election Officer will effectively disappear until at least 2000, providing ample opportunity for old ways of selecting officers to re-emerge as the normal way."

One of Coia's challengers last year, Bernard "Barney" Scanlon, said he could not have run without the secret ballot to shield his supporters from intimidation.

Not a single member of Scanlon's notoriously corrupt local in Long Island rose to nominate Scanlon, so he had to nominate himself. But on the secret ballot, Scanlon was elected delegate with about 225 votes.

Goldberg said that such modest advances will wither without continued federal supervision.

"Only if these recommendations are followed is there any realistic likelihood that LIUNA will develop into a participative democracy," Goldberg wrote, one "in which members use the ballot box to keep LIUNA free of corruption and criminal influence."

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company

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