Laborers' Reform Deal With Justice Proceeds
The government's strategy against the union
puzzles former members of a crime commission, which nine years
ago said this was a "case waiting to happen."
By DAN BARRY and MIKE STANTON
Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers
Four months ago, the U.S. Department of Justice
and the Laborers' International Union of North America trumpeted
a unique agreement giving the union one more chance to cleanse itself of organized-crime influence - under
the threat of a government takeover.
The agreement gave the union 90 days to demonstrate
its commitment to reform. If the Justice Department was not satisfied
with the pace of the cleanup, it could seize control and oust
the union's leaders, including General President Arthur A. Coia
of Rhode Island.
Since then, the trumpets have been silent.
The 90-day deadline passed quietly last month, with no indication
of the government's plans for the union. Justice officials have
declined to release the union's 200-page progress report, or to
answer questions about the arrangement.
A Justice Department spokesman explained
that the agreement is an "internal matter" between the
federal government and the 770,000-member union.
Meanwhile, Laborers' officials say the agreement
reflects their commitment to creating an environment wherein hiring
practices are fair, pension funds are invested prudently, and mobsters can find no refuge. They say they've
hired a squadron of former federal prosecutors, FBI agents and
Labor Department investigators to handle complaints and root out corruption.
And, in a recent letter to a watchdog group
called the Association for Union Democracy, Laborers' president
Coia said that "both we and the government have been very
satisfied with the integrity and effectiveness with which our
new enforcement tools have been put to use."
But the association's spokesman, Herman Benson,
wrote back to Coia: "It would be self-defeating to try to
construct a magnificent union program on a suspect foundation."
Others share Benson's skepticism, including
two former members of President Reagan's Commission on Organized
Crime: Temple University law professor Charles Rogovin and veteran
journalist Eugene H. Methvin.
Nine years ago, the President's Commission
chronicled the pervasive Mafia influence in the Laborers' International,
then told the Justice Department there was "a case waiting
to be made."
Nine years later, Rogovin and Methvin say
they are still waiting for that case to be made - regardless of
the recent union-government agreement.
Says Methvin: "The jury's still out
as to whether the Justice Department won or the other side won."
Calls for reform are nothing new to the Laborers'.
In 1986, the President's Commission on Organized
Crime issued a report, called "The Edge," that examined
mob influence in labor unions. In particular, it focused on the
"Bad Four": The Teamsters; the Longshoremen; the Hotel
Employee and Restaurant Employees; and the Laborers.
The commission concluded that the Mafia had
infiltrated the Laborers', and it urged the Justice Department
to file a civil racketeering case designed to return the union
to its members - a recommendation reflected in the
title of the chapter addressing the Laborers': "A Case Waiting
To Be Made."
The commissioners struck an almost paternal
tone when discussing the union. The typical laborer has a limited
formal education, they said, and performs the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs in the construction industry.
More than any other worker, the laborer has the greatest need
for honest union representation:
"If the union's leadership is corrupt
- if the leaders steal or misuse workers' funds or if they accept
payoffs to permit employers to overwork, underpay, replace workers
or disregard job safety measures - the individual has limited
According to the commission, the Laborers'
International presented just such a scenario:
"Organized crime has used its influence
over the Laborers' union to obtain workers' benefit funds, provide
no-show jobs for (La Cosa Nostra) members, pay the personal expenses
of union officials, gain access to the political process, and
. . . manipulate the construction market."
The Laborers', the report concluded, was
corrupt from the top down.
The union's president, Angelo Fosco, was
routinely meeting with the top leaders of the Chicago mob, and
had appointed "made" members of organized crime to important
union posts. Fosco appeared before the commission in April 1985,
and refused to comment on the union's alleged mob ties; he invoked
his rights against self-incrimination seven times during his brief
The commission also zeroed in on the union's
secretary-treasurer, Arthur E. Coia of Providence, the father
of the current union president. The elder Coia had been indicted
on federal charges that he received payoffs
for steering union business to select companies.
The case against Coia and his co-defendants
- who included his son, Arthur A. Coia, and New England crime
boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca - were dropped because the indictment
was filed after the statute of limitations had expired. Still,
the commission expressed outrage, in part because the elder Coia
had spent $200,000 of Laborers' money to track the government's
investigation of the union.
'I expected action'
The commission recommended that the Justice
Department take immediate action against the Laborers' and, in
an ancillary report, Commissioner Methvin criticized the government's
performance to that point.
"The Justice Department's efforts of
the last fifteen years have failed . . . It is time to bring civil
RICO actions against (the Laborers' and other unions) and to seek
lifetime bars for their corrupt leaders and the corrupt businessmen
who deal with them."
Methvin now says he thought his harsh words
would do the trick: That federal action would lead to the ouster
of Fosco, Coia and others, and that the union would be reformed.
"I did have high hopes," Methvin
says. "I expected action in a reasonably short period of
His former colleague, law professor Rogovin,
agrees: "The commission felt strongly that this was a situation
that ought to get some immediate attention."
The President's Commission report was released
in March 1986 with great fanfare. Soon afterward, the Justice
Department, acting in part on the commission's recommendations,
filed a civil racketeering lawsuit against the Teamsters that
led to broad reform within that union.
But when it came to the Laborers', there
was nothing; no top Laborers' executives were arrested, and no
racketeering lawsuit was filed.
Fosco, the friend to the Chicago mob, continued
as union president for another seven years, until he died in Florida
Coia retired as secretary-treasurer in 1989,
but continued to hold nominal union posts until his death in 1993.
His son, Arthur A. Coia, replaced him as secretary-treasurer,
then succeeded Fosco as president.
Over the years, the federal government brought
civil and criminal cases against Laborers' fiefdoms around the
country, going after corrupt officials in Buffalo, N.Y., Cleveland
and New Jersey. And last December, federal prosecutors
in New York settled a racketeering case against a Laborers' subsidiary,
the Mason Tenders, by negotiating an agreement with Coia that
is expected to sweep out dozens of mobsters.
Still, the Justice Department never brought
a case - either civil or criminal - against the union's national
executives, despite the roadmap provided by the President's Commission.
Justice officials decline to say why. But
Methvin, a Washington, D.C.-based writer for Reader's Digest,
has no qualms about expressing his impatience.
"And my impatience," he adds, "is
far exceeded by the poor rank-and- filers whose rights have been
trampled on all these years."
The draft complaint
Finally, in November 1994 - more than eight
years after the President's Commission report - the Justice Department
took steps to reform headquarters at Laborers' International.
But federal prosecutors did not file a civil
racketeering case against the Laborers'. Instead, they provided
the union with a draft of a racketeering complaint - the culmination
of a three-year investigation - that they threatened to file in
Documents filed in a civil lawsuit said that
the draft described the Laborers' as corrupt, mismanaged, and
rife with organized crime. It called for the ouster of Arthur
A. Coia - the general president and son of Arthur E. Coia - and
recommended a government takeover.
Some of the more damning material in the
draft complaint dated back to the early 1980s, with accusations
being leveled against men who were now dead: Fosco and the elder
Still, there appeared to be some new information,
including the allegation that the younger Coia was a longtime
associate of New England organized-crime figures; the draft provided no specifics, and Coia adamantly denies the
accusation. The draft also alleged that the younger Coia had conspired
as recently as last year to steer union funds to mobsters in upstate
The threat of a civil lawsuit prompted months
of negotiations, which culminated in a kind of uneasy alliance.
The Laborers' were given time to clean up their own house, while
the government retained the right to take the union over at any
time over the next three years.
"We sincerely hope that (the union's)
internal reform program is successful," U.S. Atty. James
B. Burns said at the time. "Nevertheless, we are prepared
to do whatever must be done to guarantee (the union's) freedom
from the influence of organized crime."
'Best of all worlds'
The internal cleanup led to the ouster of
two international vice presidents. One, from New Jersey, cut a
deal in which he could retire with full benefits. The other, John
Serpico of Chicago, continues to protest his dismissal;
in 1986, the President's Commission identified Serpico as an organized-crime
W. Douglas Gow, a former FBI supervisor who
now serves as the Laborers' inspector general, says that the union-government
agreement has fostered reform.
"We've had a number of successes in
investigations," Gow says. "We've proven we can do certain
things, and it is a cost-savings to the government. They don't
have to devote the resources and it doesn't preclude them from
continuing any independent investigations.
"So they've got the best of all worlds."
But the fact that the younger Coia was allowed
to remain as president, and to oversee the internal reform movement,
is an arrangement that perplexes former commission member Rogovin.
"It's certainly puzzling as to why so
little progress was made, and then when some action was made .
. . the resolution is to allow to remain in power a man so critically
described in the draft complaint," says Rogovin. "Isn't
that tantamount to putting the cat to watch the cream?
"It certainly has to raise from the
very beginning a question as to how serious the Department of
Justice is (about) the effort to achieve reform in the Laborers'
Both Rogovin and Methvin noted the irony
of the title they gave to the chapter on the Laborers' so long
"And the case still hasn't been made,"
says Methvin. "It strikes me as outrageous."
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