U.S. Holds Off On Taking Over Laborers Union


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

Federal prosecutors have given no indication that they intend to take over the Laborers' International Union or remove its leader, Arthur A. Coia, despite an agreement allowing them to do so beginning this week, a union lawyer said yesterday.

"My understanding is that our internal reforms are on track and moving forward unless we hear otherwise," said the lawyer, Robert D. Luskin.

In February, Coia signed a unique agreement with the Justice Department giving him 90 days to demonstrate his willingness to purge the union of longstanding corruption and organized-crime influence.

After the 90 days, which ran out Monday, the government can take over one of the country's largest unions and oust Coia and other top executives, as it did with the Teamsters union in 1989.

The Justice Department has made no move to do so, and would not comment yesterday on its intentions. The government can take over the union any time during the next three years if not satisfied with Coia's reforms.

Luskin said the union has not heard from the Justice Department, and "there's no reason to expect" a government takeover is imminent.

Coia, who was unavailable for comment, is preoccupied with other matters.

Earlier this week, he huddled in Washington with other national labor leaders plotting an historic challenge to veteran AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland. Coia, a prominent Democratic Party supporter and friend of President Clinton, even allowed that he would be interested in succeeding Kirkland.

Today, as part of his new internal reforms, Coia is expected to testify at a union disciplinary hearing in Chicago. The hearing is for Laborers' vice president John Serpico of Chicago, who was suspended by Coia in January for alleged organized-crime ties.

Serpico's lawyer vows to quiz Coia about the agreement he negotiated with the government, and about the union leader's own alleged mob ties - allegations that surfaced in a Justice Department draft complaint last November.

"I'd like to know how it came to pass that the Justice Department originally sought to remove Mr. Coia, then they turn around and say he can stay," said the lawyer, Matthias A. Lydon.

Luskin declined comment on the hearing, calling it an internal union matter.

Last week, the Laborers submitted an extensive report to the government, summarizing the progress that it has made in the last 90 days.

Luskin declined to release a copy, or discuss its contents.

"It's a document responsive to a government request," he said. "It includes matters of disciplinary actions that we're taking."

Previously, Luskin and Coia have hyped their reforms, which include hiring former federal prosecutors and ex-FBI agents to investigate corruption.

Prosecutors are reviewing the union's report as they deliberate the Laborers' fate. But a Justice Department spokesman, John Russell, said there is no timetable for a decision.

Russell, too, declined to release a copy of the union's report, and he said the department would have no further comment.

Luskin said the Laborers and the Justice Department have had discussions during the last three months about the union's progress in fostering reform.

The government's position throughout, he said, has been to allow the union to pursue a cleanup internally.

The February agreement between the government and the union left Coia - whom prosecutors had threatened to remove last fall - in charge.

As part of that threat, the government last November sent the Laborers a draft of a civil racketeering complaint that it put together after a three- year investigation.

The unsigned draft was never filed in court; it surfaced only recently, as an exhibit in court battles between Coia and other union officials over the course of reform. The existence of the draft complaint and Coia's internal union struggles were reported by the Journal-Bulletin on Sunday.

The draft complaint said that Coia had associated with and been controlled by organized-crime figures, and that the union president, who is from Providence, conspired as recently as last year to funnel money from upstate New York locals to the Buffalo Mafia.

Coia denies the allegations. Luskin characterized the draft complaint as a bargaining tool that, while raising some legitimate concerns, was off the mark regarding Coia.

The government delivered the draft complaint with an ultimatum that it would file it as a racketeering lawsuit and seek a government takeover unless the union responded appropriately within two weeks.

That led to three months of negotiations, during which the government dropped its demand for Coia's removal. Coia, meanwhile, suspended two vice presidents for alleged mob connections: Serpico and Samuel J. Caivano, a longtime ally from New Jersey.

Serpico and Caivano both sued, contending that Coia had sacrificed them to preserve his own position.

On Wednesday, Caivano and the Laborers settled their dispute. The union dropped its disciplinary charges against Caivano and reinstated him as vice president. In return, Caivano, 75, retired immediately and agreed to drop his lawsuit.

Luskin said the agreement will allow Caivano to collect his full union pension.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.

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