April 17, 1998
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
-- Arthur A. Coia, the Rhode Island union chief leader who became
a top Democratic fundraiser and a friend of President Clinton,
has begun his defense against charges that he let the Mafia hold
sway in the Laborers International Union of North America.
In a secret union disciplinary proceeding
that opened here Tuesday, Coia began what may be several weeks
of quasi-judicial hearings that will determine whether he keeps
his $254,000-a-year job as Laborers general president.
"I will be totally, completely and finally
vindicated," Coia, 55, of Barrington, declared when the internal
charges -- which included alleged kickbacks from a union vendor
-- were lodged last November.
Coia is being represented by Brendan V. Sullivan
Jr. and Howard Guttman, of the prestigious Washington firm of
Williams & Connelly.
The charges were brought by Robert D. Luskin,
a former federal prosecutor whom Coia hired in 1994 to set up
an in-house anti-corruption unit that staved off a government
takeover of the mob-tainted union.
Luskin, the lawyer for the union executive
board who acts as prosecutor of the internal charges, has not
released details of the charges and would not comment on the Coia
Acting as judge in the quasi-judicial proceeding
is Philadelphia lawyer and former U.S. prosecutor Peter F. Vaira,
the union's independent hearing officer. Vaira will issue a written
ruling on the case -- to which union members will have access
-- after the hearings are concluded. In some previous internal
disciplinary cases, Vaira's rulings have taken months to issue.
The union public affairs office has declined
comment on the Coia matter. But in a summary released last fall,
the union said that Coia is charged with, between 1980 and 1993,
having "knowingly associated with members of organized crime,
knowingly permitted organized-crime members to influence the affairs
of LIUNA, breached his constitutional and fiduciary duties to
the union and improperly accepted benefits from a LIUNA service
At congressional hearings on the Laborers
in 1996, the ex-FBI agent who is the union's chief internal investigator
said he had pressed the Laborers to stop doing business with two
Rhode Island companies because of their alleged mob ties.
The companies were Viking Oldsmobile-Cadillac,
of Middletown, which leased cars to the union, and Sophisticated
Traveler, of Providence, which booked trips for union members.
Coia has become entangled in an internal
anti-corruption unit that he helped to create after the Justice
Department named him and threatened a federal takeover of the
Laborers in a draft racketeering complaint in November 1994.
With Luskin leading the negotiations, Coia
signed an agreement in February 1995 under which the union set
up the in-house policing office and the Justice Department held
off on seizing the union -- but retained the right to do so if
it deemed the internal cleanup unworkable. That three-year agreement
was recently extended until next January.
Luskin said shortly after the agreement was
signed that he had warned Coia during the negotiations, "Arthur,
if you have anything to hide, don't go down this road."
The Justice Department's draft racketeering
lawsuit -- which the internal investigators pledged to use as
a road map --- contained detailed allegations that Coia has "associated
with and been controlled by and influenced by organized-crime
Among other specifics, the document alleges
Coia had conspired early in his term as the union's
president to funnel money from upstate New York locals to the
Coia has denied any wrongdoing.