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Sunday June 25, 1995

Laborers' watchdog broke pledge of secrecy

The union's investigator says that despite the ''unfortunate'' breach of confidentiality, he is still rooting out corruption.


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers

Cruz Gutierrez thought a new era had dawned at the Laborers' International Union when he dialed Doug Gow's number.

Gutierrez is a San Francisco laborer who has spent the last several years fighting union corruption. Gow is a former FBI supervisor brought in by Laborers' president Arthur A. Coia to clean up the union and avert a federal takeover.

As the union's new inspector general, Gow has tried to ease the historic reluctance of laborers to report corruption. He installed a toll-free hotline and encouraged union members to tell him about wrongdoing; he also promised confidentiality.

"If you want people to cooperate with you and come forward, you've got to be able to maintain a degree of confidentiality and privacy," he says.

That's what Gutierrez believed when he saw Gow's ad in a recent union magazine.

Gutierrez, a 52-year-old construction foreman in San Francisco Local 261, complained that he has had trouble getting work in the last few years because he is part of a dissident faction within his local. He says he has fought to have union jobs assigned fairly, but that local and even national union executives have ignored his complaints.

But the next person he heard from after he complained to Gow was an aide to a union executive who had ignored his pleas in the past. The aide called him at home, read his Social Security number, and asked for details of his complaint. Gutierrez refused.

Later that week, Gutierrez says, he was denounced at a union meeting. One of the local leaders even boasted that he had been in the aide's office when Gutierrez was called.

A furious Gutierrez contacted Gow again: "I want to thank you for jeopardizing the lives of my family and myself," he wrote. "Now whenever I go out on a job, I will have to look over my shoulder and hope no one arranges an 'accident' for me."

* * *

'Gow cannot be trusted!'

Gow acknowledges the mistake, and vows it won't happen again. He says it has been blown out of proportion, and that he has received an overwhelmingly favorable response from union members eager to report wrongdoing.

But the incident illustrates the obstacles that Gow faces in policing a 770,000-member union that prosecutors say has a long history of corruption.

"If the so-called inspector general exposes independent-minded laborers to retaliation from the officials, he will subvert the whole reform effort," says Herman Benson of the watchdog group, Association for Union Democracy.

A northern California union reform group is circulating a flier Urging members to bypass Gow and report complaints directly to federal prosecutors.

"Gow cannot be trusted!" the flier says.

Hard Hat Construction Magazine, an independent publication, says it cannot recommend that union workers call Gow with complaints, "since to do so might put one's job, or even life, in danger."

Says Gutierrez, who now refuses to cooperate with the inspector general: "I had heard that Gow was appointed and paid by the International, but that he was responsible to the government. But now it looks like the same b.s."

* * *

'Unfortunate episode'

Gow, a 30-year veteran of the FBI and former head of investigations, was hired by Coia under a two-year contract; he declines to say for how much.

Gow confers regularly with Coia and also gives progress reports to the union's executive board. But he says he doesn't discuss his investigations with union leaders, or take orders from them about what - or whom - to investigate.

"I'm not running up to Mr. Coia, saying so-and-so called. That just does not occur," he says. "If I do not see a good faith on the part of union officials, or anything that is trying to undermine (the investigation), then that's when I'll fold my tent."

Gow calls the Gutierrez situation "an unfortunate episode," a mistake that occurred in the confusion of starting the inspector general's office and handling "more pressing matters."

"We just wanted to round out the individual's complaint," he says. "We asked the international to get the basic facts."

Gow bristles at the suggestion that he can't be trusted. He says he has hired 33 investigators, most of them respected former FBI investigators with expertise in organized crime and labor racketeering, and that they are pursuing 143 cases around the country.

"I think it caused some question, but by the numbers of calls we get and investigations we're doing, it has not hurt," he says. "The people I've got working for me, I'd put up against any FBI squad that exists today. . go where the facts are."

It's unclear, however, whether Gow is investigating Coia.

In April, Gow said he was not investigating the union president.

Last week, Gow declined comment on whether he has opened a file on Coia, saying it is his policy not to confirm or deny investigations.

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