Hearings Set On Mob Ties To Laborers'
Whether Arthur A. Coia's friendship with
President Clinton influenced the Justice Department's treatment
of the Laborers' will be explored in hearings this week in Washington.
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN and MIKE STANTON
Journal-Bulletin Staff Writers
RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur Coia
WASHINGTON -- On Nov. 4, 1994, Laborers'
International Union leader Arthur A. Coia received a handwritten
note from the White House:
I've just heard you've become a grandfather -- congratulations!
Thanks for the gorgeous driver. It's a work of art!
The same day, Coia received a weightier document
from President Clinton's Justice Department: a 212-page draft
racketeering complaint that accused Coia of running one of America's biggest labor unions for the benefit
of organized crime.
The two images of the Rhode Island - born Coia -- a rising star in Democratic politics and labor, an alleged tool of the mob -- will collide this week in a congressional hearing room.
There, on Wednesday and Thursday, the House
Judiciary Committee's crime subcommittee will investigate alleged
control by the mob of the 750,000-member Laborers' International
Union of North America: a sprawling conglomeration of toxic-waste
haulers, oil riggers, tunnel diggers, construction workers and
It is a tale of Washington black-tie dinners
and personalized golf clubs exchanged by Coia and Clinton . .
. of union kickbacks and extortion involving lucrative union pension funds, no-show jobs, illegal waste dumping
and grimy construction sites. The congressional inquiry promises
to raise questions of power and politics -- from grubby union halls to Coia's executive suite, three
blocks from the White House, to the Oval Office itself.
THE REPUBLICAN-LED crime subcommittee will
explore Coia's political friendship with Clinton, and whether
it influenced the Justice Department's decision to leave Coia
in control of the union. Since Coia became president,
in February 1993, the Laborers' have donated $2.4 million to congressional
candidates, most of them Democrats. In addition, since last year
the Laborers' have given $435,000 to the Democratic Party, making
the union first among labor contributors.
In a scene that could evoke the drama of
past congressional hearings into labor racketeering, the subcommittee
plans to call a former Laborers' official and government informant,
who will testify out of camera range, with a scrambler to mask
The witness, Ronald M. Fino, has told authorities
that as a leader of the mob-run Buffalo, N.Y., local he was a
confidant of Coia's father, the late Arthur E. Coia, who was for years the second most powerful man in the
Laborers'. In statements to the FBI, reported last year by the
Journal-Bulletin, Fino described how the elder Coia had told him
of taking kickbacks from construction companies, carrying "plenty
of cash" to bribe New England politicians and owing his allegiance
to longtime New England Mafia boss Raymond L. S. Patriarca.
Fino's Buffalo local figures as a central
element in the Justice Department's draft racketeering complaint
against the younger Coia: that the union president conspired to
direct upstate - New York pension funds to Buffalo mobsters.
Fino "will definitely firsthand be able
to discuss the relationships between the union and the mob and
Mr. Coia," says Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., the crime subcommittee chairman.
Democrats and unionists say they are prepared
to fire back that the hearings are an election-year effort to
embarrass Clinton, and are part of a broader Republican assault
not on organized crime but on organized labor.
This is House Speaker Newt Gingrich's revenge, they say, for the
AFL-CIO's publicized $35-million drive to regain Democratic control
of the House of Representatives.
The Laborers' union has waged an aggressive
public relations campaign, using two public relations firms, conducting
briefings for House members and buying pricey full-page ads in
major newspapers to attack "right-wing extremists" and
what they consider irresponsible media coverage, particularly
by the Journal-Bulletin.
TOP JUSTICE Department officials are expected
to testify that the agreement they reached with the Laborers'
in February 1995, which averted a federal takeover of the union,
is an innovative and effective way to clean up
a corrupt union. As part of the arrangement, Coia hired former
federal prosecutors and retired FBI agents to root out dishonest
union officials. And the government reserved the right, until
February 1998, to seize control and oust Coia if his efforts are
Among the witnesses scheduled to defend the
arrangement -- and to assert that there was no political pressure
from the White House -- are former White House counsels Lloyd Cutler and Abner Mikva, former Asst. Atty.
Gen. Jo Ann Harris, Deputy Asst. Atty. Gen. John C. Keeney and
Paul E. Coffey, chief of the Justice Department's organized crime and racketeering section.
"There was no influence brought to bear
that was inappropriate," Atty. Gen. Janet Reno said Thursday.
Asked whether Clinton's contacts with Coia had been appropriate,
given the Justice Department's investigation, Reno replied: "I
haven't followed that."
Reno said that by avoiding the drawn-out,
costly legal battle that would have resulted from an attempted
government takeover of the Laborers', prosecutors have set the
stage for more immediate reform.
Says crime subcommittee Chairman Bill McCollum:
"I don't foreclose coming out of these hearings saying, `This
is a terrific idea -- it has the potential to work really well.'
I'd like to be able to say that. We certainly need to have innovation."
That is the argument of Robert D. Luskin,
the Washington lawyer and former organized-crime prosecutor hired
by Coia to negotiate the Justice Department agreement and to direct
the union's internal reform.
Luskin points to the suspension of more than
three dozen Laborers' officials for violating a new union ethics
code or for having suspected ties to organized crime. In addition,
he says, the union has taken over the mob-riddled
Local 210 in Buffalo.
"Notwithstanding some of the things
you've read," says Luskin, "we believe we are doing
the Lord's work."
In agreeing to allow the government to take
over the Laborers' for three years, Luskin says, "we gave
them a loaded gun, pointed it at our head and said, `You decide
when you want to pull the trigger.' "
Still, the crime subcommittee wants to explore
why some alleged mobsters have continued to thrive amid Coia's
For example, last year Salvatore Lanza, a
longtime officer of the corrupt Mason Tenders in New York, was
made treasurer of the New York Laborers' political-action committee.
The original draft racketeering complaint described Lanza as an
associate of the Genovese crime family, who would conduct union
business meetings with Genovese boss Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno, at Salerno's
And some lower-level federal prosecutors
have criticized the pace of Luskin's internal investigation, particularly
regarding Coia. Luskin counters that Coia has been questioned
under oath in depositions twice this year, and the investigation
Coia apparently won't testify, however, at
this week's congressional hearings. Although he has not refused
to appear, the Republicans decided not to force the issue after
Coia's lawyers refused to make the union leader available for
an interview with the subcommittee investigators.
The subcommittee's Democrats, however, say
that Coia would be willing to testify if the Democrats asked him
to. But the subcommittee's Democratic counsel, John Flannery,
has not revealed their plans.
UNION REFORMERS and the fragmented Laborers'
dissidents argue that beyond the Beltway politics and Coia's trumpeted
accomplishments lies the story of a union in which reform is not
seeping down to the local union hall.
Although Coia has promoted new rules banning
favoritism, the critics say that corrupt business agents are still
flouting the rules and doling out jobs to cronies, while punishing opponents. Nor, say the critics, is the union
vigorously prosecuting such violations.
"If we can't see reform on the street
they can posture all they want, but we won't have a democratic
union," says dissident Chris White, a Fairbanks, Alaska,
bus driver who is attempting to run against Coia for president
of the Laborers'.
Herman Benson, of the reform group the Association
for Union Democracy, says there have been some improvements but
he accuses Coia's cleanup crew of a "P.R. whitewash."
"I keep getting complaints of nepotism
and favoritism -- that if you criticize the business agent you
don't work," says Benson. "The atmosphere is only slightly
better in terms of encouraging members to come forward. What
you have is the same forces accused of reporting to organized
crime given the authority to clean themselves up."
W. Douglas Gow, an ex-FBI official hired
by the Laborers' to lead the probe of wrongdoing, counters that
he is directing "a number" of investigations of abusive
Benson is skeptical about how effectively
this week's hearings will explore problems in the Laborers', given
the underlying political motives. He warns that the Republicans
will lose the sympathy of rank-and-file unionists if they use
these hearings as a platform from which to paint the entire labor
movement as corrupt and mob-dominated.
Still, says Benson, an inquiry into the Laborers'
"If you wait for the right people to
do the right thing at the right time for the right motives," he says, "you'll wait
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