Coia Won't Testify At Hearings

House Republicans will hold hearings next week on corruption in the Laborers' union, but without president Arthur A. Coia.



Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers

RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur Coia

WASHINGTON -- Upcoming congressional hearings into corruption in the Laborers' International Union of North America won't feature the central figure of the inquiry, union president Arthur A. Coia.

House Republicans formally announced their timetable for the hearings of the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime -- next Wednesday and Thursday -- and said yesterday that they won't call Coia to testify.

Some federal prosecutors and outside experts would like to see Coia testify under oath about allegations of mob domination of the 750,000-member Laborers'.

Coia hasn't refused to testify, nor would his lawyers comment on whether he would be interested in appearing. But the committee, which has debated the matter since launching its investigation last month, apparently balked after Coia's lawyers declined to make him available for an interview before the hearings.

Rep. Bill McCollum of Florida, the committee chairman, said he doesn't want to force the issue and won't seek to subpoena Coia. The subpoena process requires a vote by the committee and might be difficult to complete before the hearings if Coia chose to resist.

McCollum is also sensitive to criticism that these hearings have been thrown together quickly at the behest of Speaker Newt Gingrich, as a Republican attack on President Clinton and Coia, a prominent Democratic supporter and fund-raiser.

"I don't make too much of it," McCollum said of Coia's refusal to be interviewed. "It's a tactic that attorneys may choose to use if they wish."

Unless Coia wants to testify, "we're not trying to be dramatic and bring him up here and put him under oath and put him up in the limelight," McCollum said. "It's not a case of anybody trying to get anybody."

Besides, McCollum said, Coia's presence won't be required for the committee to explore the two central questions before it: Why the Justice Department agreed to leave Coia in charge of the union, after identifying him as part of the problem, and the effectiveness of his internal cleanup.

Rhode Island-born Coia, 53, was named by the Justice Department in 1994 in a 212-page draft racketeering complaint -- a complaint that alleged Coia's involvement in a scheme to steer union funds to the mob. It called for the removal of Coia and other top union officials.

The suit was never filed and, after intensive negotiations, Coia signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in February 1995. Under the agreement, Coia remained as president and agreed to hire former federal prosecutors and FBI agents to investigate suspected union wrongdoers -- including Coia.

The government also reserved the right to take over the union anytime before February 1997 if it was not satisfied with the internal cleanup.

The Justice Department has trumpeted the agreement as an innovative and cost-effective means of cleaning up corrupt unions. But McCollum said its treatment of Coia raises valid questions -- given the allegations against him and his political friendship with Mr. Clinton.

"The appearance would be that we've left the fox guarding the chicken coop," McCollum said.

One of Coia's lawyers, Howard Gutman, declined to discuss Coia's dealings with the committee or possible testimony. At a union-sponsored briefing for reporters last week on Capitol Hill, Gutman said the Justice agreement provided "absolutely no protection" for Coia -- from the in-house investigators or from continuing federal investigation.

Gutman said Coia "can be and is and has been" under investigation by the union. Coia has given two sworn depositions to Robert D. Luskin, the ex-Justice prosecutor whom Coia hired to prosecute union corruption cases.

Luskin said yesterday that he would have had no objection to Coia appearing before the committee. His investigation of Coia is continuing, he said.

G. Robert Blakey, a Notre Dame University law professor who drafted the key racketeering statute as a Democratic Senate staffer 26 years ago, said Coia should be asked about the allegations against him and about his political friendship with Mr. Clinton.

"John Dean had to testify" in the Watergate hearings during the Nixon administration, noted Blakey. "Ollie North had to testify" during the Iran-contra hearings under President Reagan.

"These were major issues before the Republic," said Blakey. "Why can't Mr. Coia testify on this issue, which is comparatively minor?"

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