By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
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
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
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
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.)
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