Early Warnings To Avoid Coia Ignored By Clintons


Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur Coia

WASHINGTON -- The White House apparently was alerted in early

1994 that Laborers' union chief Arthur A. Coia was the target of a federal racketeering probe, but President Clinton continued to court his political support.

Internal Justice Department documents obtained by the Journal-Bulletin show that federal prosecutors sought to convey their concern about Coia, the general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, to the White House much earlier than the administration has previously acknowledged.

The chief of the Justice Department's organized crime and racketeering section, Paul E. Coffey, urged in a Jan. 11, 1994, memo that Hillary Rodham Clinton "should avoid any direct contact with Coia," since prosecutors planned to "portray him as a mob puppet."

But throughout 1994, Mr. Clinton kept up his political friendship with Coia, in ways big and small: over breakfast at the White House and over dinner at gala Democratic fund-raisers; accepting a handmade golf shirt; discussing federal job-training grants for the Laborers' union.

In October 1994, Mr. Clinton was considering appointing Coia to a presidential commission when an even more emphatic alert went up to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. Asst. Atty. Gen. Jo Ann Harris, the third-ranking officer in the Justice Department, told Reno of evidence that "Coia was associated with and controlled by the New England Family of La Cosa Nostra."

That was two weeks before Mr. Clinton hosted Coia in the Oval Office on Oct. 20, 1994, and made his now-famous gift of a golf club to the Rhode Island-born labor leader.

The memos detailing the prosecutors' concerns about Mr. Clinton's relationship with Coia are part of a raft of documents that the White House, the Justice Department and the Laborers' union have provided to the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime, which is conducting two days of hearings into union corruption. The Journal-Bulletin obtained the memos yesterday.

The House panel is looking into how Coia fended off the Justice Department racketeering complaint and whether his political connections played a role.

No evidence of White House interference has emerged. And until the new documents surfaced it appeared that no high-level efforts had been made to caution the White House about Coia until January 1995, after prosecutors had presented him with their draft complaint.

House crime subcommittee chairman Bill McCollum, R-Fla., referred to the memos during yesterday's hearing, saying that they called into question "the appearances and appropriateness" of the President's dealings with Coia.

When the Journal-Bulletin began reporting on the Laborers' case last year, a key question was why Mrs. Clinton had given a speech to the union's Tri-Fund Conference in Orlando, Fla., in February 1995, while lawyers for the Justice Department and the union were still embroiled in their negotiations over the union's -- and Coia's -- future.

The big news from the latest round of memos is that the Justice Department had frowned on the prospect of contact between Mrs. Clinton and Coia a full year before that, when she was invited to address the same annual conference by satellite TV.

Here is a brief chronology of what the memos show and how Coia's contacts with the Clintons continued from early 1994 to Feb. 13, 1995, when the union's agreement with the Justice Department was signed:

--On Jan. 11, 1994, Coffey, the chief of the department's organized-crime unit, wrote to Deputy Asst. Atty. Gen. John C. Keeney with his advice about the First Lady's plan to speak at a union conference in Florida on Feb. 2 or 3.

Coffey said that the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago would soon recommend a civil racketeering suit against the union and Coia, among other defendants. Coffey said he understood that the Labor Department had told the White House that some of the defendants would be at the conference. He said, "it might be a good idea to double-check on that," and added that Mrs. Clinton's speech by satellite would be no problem.

Coffey concluded: "It might be prudent to recommend that she avoid any direct contact with Coia, if possible, inasmuch as we plan to portray him as a mob puppet."

Mrs. Clinton made the televised speech, but the record of Coia's continuing contacts with the White House shows no effort to put distance between him and the First Family. He attended a presidential dinner, for example, on April 19, 1994. And in May, Coia attended a White House bill signing, and he gave $50,000 to one of Mrs. Clinton's favorite charities, the U.S. Botanic Garden. That won Coia and his wife entree to an exclusive dinner attended by the Clintons.

--In a Sept. 15, 1994, memo, White House Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler formally asked the FBI to check on Coia, because Coia was being considered for appointment to the President's Advisory Council on Competitiveness.

The FBI's Oct. 7 response describes its years of investigation of Coia and states: "Coia is a criminal associate of the New England Patriarca organized-crime family." The report also notes that Coia was under "ongoing civil investigation by the FBI," and cautions against disclosure of that fact. The report says that Abner J. Mikva, Cutler's replacement as White House counsel, requested the check.

The memo from Asst.Atty. Gen. Harris to Reno -- labeled "DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE URGENT REPORT" -- is undated but refers to the advisory-council appointment and the White House request for an inquiry on Coia.

"The Criminal Division has long had information, including public testimony and information from cooperating witnesses, that Coia was associated with and controlled by the New England Crime Family of La Cosa Nostra," Harris wrote.

She added that within several weeks the Justice Department's organized-crime unit planned to file its complaint, accusing Coia and two previous union presidents "of being puppets of the LCN [La Cosa Nostra]. "

(Coia's lawyer, Howard Gutman, said yesterday that he understood that federal authorities did not consider Coia "a criminal associate" of organized crime. Gutman said, rather, that they had characterized him as "associated with" mob figures, including union members with whom he dealt in his job. Gutman said the lesser designation may refer merely "to having dinners and the like" with such figures.)

Coia never got his presidential appointment, but on Oct. 20, 1994, he did get a personal meeting with President Clinton to lobby for federal grants. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes also attended the Oval Office meeting.

That was the occasion of Mr. Clinton's now famous gesture of friendship to the labor leader: He presented Coia with a Calloway "Divine Nine" golf club. Coia reciprocated days later with the gift of an expensive driver, handmade by a Rhode Island artisan, bearing the Presidential seal.

--On Nov. 4, Coffey, the chief of the Justice Department's organized-crime unit, delivered the draft racketeering complaint to Coia's office, at Laborers' headquarters, in Washington. That complaint was never filed in court. Instead, there ensued three months of negotiations between Coia's legal team and the Justice Department.

Meanwhile, the union asked Mrs. Clinton to keep her date to address the Feb. 6, 1995, Tri-Fund Conference in Florida. When the Journal-Bulletin asked about that last year, the White House press office issued a statement that said in part:

"A few days prior to her departure Ms. Clinton was informed by the Deputy Chief of Staff that the Justice Department had informed the counsel's office that Mr. Coia was currently under investigation; therefore she should not have any private meetings or conversations with Mr. Coia. The President was not advised of the Justice Department's investigation of Mr. Coia as there was no occasion for which he had a need to know this information. . . . "

White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn said last night that the White House had no explanation yet of whether the Clintons had, in fact, ever been cautioned against meetings with Coia after the time of Coffey's Jan. 11, 1994, memo -- and if so why their contacts with Coia proliferated through 1994.

--On Feb. 13, 1995, the union and the Justice Department signed an agreement that permitted the union to mount its own internal campaign against mob corruption, and let Coia stay on as president. The Justice Department retained the right, until February 1998, to take over the union if the in-house union cleanup is deemed unsatisfactory.

The documents provided to the Journal-Bulletin do not make clear whether the warnings about the imminent proceedings against Coia ever got to President Clinton and, if so, when and how.

But the memos do make clear that -- more than a year before the Justice Department-Laborers' agreement -- top-level federal prosecutors were sensitive to the propriety of Coia's contacts with the President and the first lady, and tried to send warnings up the chain of command.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer, N.Y., the ranking crime-subcommittee Democrat, ridiculed the idea that a president could avoid all contact with labor leaders whose unions are accused of corruption.

He produced a photograph of then-Sen. Bob Dole with the late Jackie Presser, the notorious Teamsters leader, and asked whether "that disqualifies Bob Dole from being president." Asked about the appropriateness of Mr. Clinton's contacts with Coia, Schumer said, "Do I think the President and First Lady did anything wrong? The answer is no."

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

Return to Laborers.org

All original work Copyright Laborers.org 1998. All rights reserved.