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.


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:

Dear Arthur,

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 municipal employees.

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 his voice.

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 not satisfactory.

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 cleanup.

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 social club.

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 is continuing.

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 hiring-hall practices.

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' is necessary.

"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 forever."

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.
Produced by www.projo.com and The Providence Journal Company

Return to Laborers.org