Laborer's Union Faces Hearings Today

A House subcommittee on crime is looking into mob ties to the union and the Justice Department's decision to let the union police itself.


Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur Coia

WASHINGTON -- Republicans rushed last night to complete arrangements for the congressional hearings that start today into the Mafia's influence over the Laborers' International Union of North America.

Last-minute changes in the witness list added a note of uncertainty to the political implications of the two-day inquiry to be conducted by the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime.

Republicans from House Speaker Newt Gingrich on down have demanded to know how the Laborers' leader, General President Arthur A. Coia -- a top Democratic fund-raiser and a political friend of President Clinton -- fended off a Justice Department draft racketeering complaint that accused him of association with the Mafia.

Unionists call the hearings an election-year smear-in-the-making: retaliation for the AFL-CIO's $35 million advertising campaign against House Republicans.

But the chairman of the crime subcommittee, Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., has said that he has an open mind about the main questions to which he wants answers:

Was political influence a factor in the Justice Department's decision to let Coia's union police itself? And is the internal cleanup, with Coia presiding, a good way to rid the union of mob domination -- despite what McCollum calls the appearance of "the fox guarding the chicken coop"?

Coia himself is not slated to testify. And as late as yesterday afternoon it was unclear whether any representative of the union would be called to defend the internal cleanup.

But the subcommittee promises ample testimony -- starting with a pair of former FBI officials at 9:30 this morning -- about how the mob makes use of certain unions, particularly the Laborers'.

The dramatic high point of the hearings may be this afternoon's appearance by Ronald M. Fino, a federal informant and former member of the Laborers' union whom the Republicans expect to talk about Coia's associations with organized crime.

Fino's credentials include testimony that helped federal prosecutors obtain convictions against members of the Mason Tenders District Council, a New York - area collection of Laborers' locals.

Coia has derided Fino as a "paid-for-hire" witness, an allusion to the fact that the former business manager of the union's mob-dominated Buffalo, N.Y., Local 210 spent several years on the federal payroll as an informant.

But Fino has also drawn Laborers' paychecks for his services in the the union's internal cleanup of mob corruption. In November of 1994, the Justice Department delivered the 212-page racketeering complaint that was to have been the basis of a federal takeover of the union and Coia's removal. The government never filed its complaint, however; instead, the union negotiated an agreement, signed Feb. 13, 1995, that permitted it to attempt an internal anti-corruption campaign. The government has no direct role in the cleanup but retains until February of 1998 the right to take over the union if the in-house purge is deemed unsatisfactory.

The lawyer for the subcommittee's Democrats, John Flannery, has hinted at a Democratic strategy to raise questions about Fino at the hearing. A former federal prosecutor who has served as a Senate committee counsel, Flannery said he has concluded that the Republican-led hearings will be a "PR hit" against the Clinton administration.

Flannery boasted, "We will conduct a tutorial for the Republicans" on the racketeering law.

The complexion of tomorrow's hearing was still uncertain late yesterday, with Democratic and Republican staffers haggling over the witness list, which includes some of the Justice Department officials who struck the government's agreement with the union.

Also on tap for tomorrow: a White House lawyer whose duty it was to watch for possible conflicts between Coia's political association with the Clintons, on the one hand, and on the other, the evolving federal case against Coia and his union.

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