A Question Of Connections

Mob controlled Coia, says former official and FBI informant


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur Coia

WASHINGTON -- He came in through a side door, a black hood draped over his head, and walked through the hushed hearing room to a seat hidden behind cloth-covered panels.

Thus concealed, Ronald M. Fino, former union official and mob informant, described for a congressional panel yesterday how the general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America answered to La Cosa Nostra:

"He was controlled by the mob. That's how he got his job."

Although two years ago, in a draft racketeering complaint, federal prosecutors had portrayed Arthur A. Coia as being controlled by organized crime, this was the first public testimony since then linking the Rhode Island-born Coia -- a rising labor figure and political friend of President Clinton -- to the Mafia.

Laborers' officials and Democrats quickly counterattacked, accusing the Republican-controlled House committee of staging a political witch hunt to smear, through Coia, both organized labor and President Clinton's re-election campaign. The unionists and Democrats sought to raise doubts about Fino's credibility, citing a supermarket-tabloid story Fino had sold two years before about O.J. Simpson's alleged ties to Mafia drug trafficking.

But Fino, whose testimony in federal criminal cases has put mob-tainted Laborers' officials behind bars, was the star witness in the first day of the two-day hearings on the Laborers' union by the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime.

Under questioning from the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla., Fino recounted a conversation he'd had with Coia in 1987 in Toms River, N.J., at the wake of a union executive.

Fino, who was then the business agent for the Laborers' local in Buffalo, N.Y., and a trustee of a national union training fund, testified that he had been sent to the funeral by the head of the Buffalo Mafia. Fino said that he was seeking the blessing of higher-up mobsters in the union to assume the deceased executive's post as the International's vice president for New York and New Jersey.

"Joe Todaro, who was the boss of the Buffalo La Cosa Nostra family, had me go to the wake early to sit with John Riggi, the boss of the DeCalvacante [crime] family . . . [who was also] a union official," said Fino. "And I went down and seen Arthur Coia Jr., who was staying at the same hotel with me, and I explained the fact that I had just seen John Riggi and that I had seen Joe Todaro Sr., and I told him. And Coia stated that whatever Joe Todaro Sr. tells me, `You've got to listen to. You know where those decisions are going to be made.' "

Although Todaro held no formal position with the union, federal investigators have identified him as controlling union jobs and finances on behalf of the mob.

Fino testified that Coia also told him he would have to seek approval from Gaspar Lupo, a capo in the Genovese crime family and a top Laborers' official in New York City.

Partly on the basis of testimony from Fino, Riggi and Lupo have since been convicted, in separate federal cases, of crimes involving mob control of the Laborers'.

Fino also testified yesterday that Coia had met at union conventions with various mob-associated Laborers' officials, including Lupo and Chicago mob underboss Vincent Solano.

"It was common knowledge that Lupo and Solano were messengers for the mob families in New York and Chicago," said Fino.

The other side Democrats on the crime subcommittee emphasized that Fino's direct knowledge of the inner workings of the Laborers' had ceased in 1989, after 16 years as an informant for the FBI, when Fino says the Buffalo mob learned of his role and he had to go into hiding.

Given the fact that Coia signed an agreement last year with the Justice Department to clean up the Laborers' union -- involving former federal prosecutors and FBI agents hired to investigate corruption -- the Democrats argued that it is unfair to imply that the mob today controls either the union or Coia.

Coia gives a much different account of his Toms River conversation with Fino, said Howard Gutman, Coia's lawyer.

In a deposition before union-hired investigators and federal prosecutors this year, Gutman said yesterday, Coia described how he had been at the funeral with a friend when Fino approached him. Fino was seeking the support of Coia's father, Arthur E. Coia, then the union's secretary-treasurer. Gutman said that Coia considered Fino "a blowhard" and that he brushed him off quickly, saying he would have to speak to other people in the union.

Coia has acknowledged meeting with Solano, but under different circumstances. In a union deposition last year, subsequently reported in the Journal-Bulletin, Coia described a trip to Chicago in 1989, when Coia was seeking to succeed his father as secretary-treasurer. Coia said that he had gone to Chicago to lobby Laborers' vice president John Serpico, but that Serpico abruptly steered Coia to an airport coffee shop where Solano sat alone at a table.

Solano, a powerful Chicago Mafia leader, in charge of loan sharking, prostitution and gambling, told Serpico to take a walk. Then, Coia testified, Solano told Coia that he had the Mafia's blessing for the number-two job, but that he should not try for the presidency. That job was reserved for a Chicago man, Serpico.

Coia subsequently became secretary-treasurer. But, said Gutman yesterday, Coia couldn't have been the mob's choice when he ascended to the presidency in 1993, since he defeated >Serpico -- whom Coia would subsequently force out of the Laborers' as part of his internal reform of the union.

Gutman also said that Fino had presented a misleading account of Coia's alleged contacts with mobsters within the Laborers'.

"Every person he met with was a union official, and they all went to union conventions," said Gutman. "It's not like Fino spied Arthur Coia meeting clandestinely at a restaurant with mobsters."

Grand entrance.

Fino's entrance yesterday was grand theater, even for a Congressional hearing. McCollum, the crime-subcommittee chairman, ordered everyone in the cavernous House Judiciary room to remain seated, and told photographers, upon pain of contempt, not to take pictures. Then, with armed Capitol police at the back doors to block anyone from entering, Fino was ushered in from a side door in the front of the room.

Fino held a black hood over his head; he wore a gray sports jacket, a tie and blue slacks.Once he was seated behind the screen, he removed the hood, but his face was visible only to the committee.

Democrats accused the Republicans of theatrics, noting that Fino has in the past testified in court without concealing his face, and has even had his photograph in newspapers. Fino said that he requested the protection out of concern for his safety.

"Are those panels bullet-proof?" said Rep. Melvin L. Watt, D. N.C., dryly. "This is kind of an unusual situation for a Judiciary Committee hearing -- even for this [crime] committee."

Reading his opening statement in a faltering voice, Fino described how he had grown up the son of a Buffalo-mob boss, and how his disillusionment led him to become an FBI informant in 1973, shortly after joining Laborers' Local 210. For the next 16 years, he said, as he rose within the union and traveled around the country with Arthur E. Coia and other union executives, Fino fed information to the FBI. He went into hiding in 1989, after hearing that the mob had learned of his betrayal and put a price on his head.

Today's mobsters and their associates, he said, "are well-educated and take full advantage of that education and the monies they have accumulated. Today you will find the mob is as reliant on public-relations firms as it is with its high-powered attorneys and accountants. Projecting an image of goodness, popping up and chairing charitable fund-raising functions, combined with a voice for social justice, the racketeer builds a formidable defense against the Justice Department and prosecution."

Fino said he agreed with the Justice Department's assertion, in its 212-page draft racketeering complaint, that all four presidents in the Laborers' history, including Coia, have associated with and been controlled by organized-crime figures.

What do you base that on? asked McCollum.

"Regarding Mr. Coia," said Fino, "because he told me."

Fino described how the Laborers' union has been run as a tool of organized crime, with crime families in New York City and Chicago dominating, and mobsters in New England, Cleveland and Buffalo holding considerable power. He described a tightly controlled union in which jobs at the local level are doled out to mobsters and cronies, and contracts are negotiated at the top level with favored contractors, who kick back money to the mob.

"You name it," said Fino, "they can make money on it. I know so many different ways to rig a contract and do things in areas that you'd never get caught at. A lot of scams go on, every single day. They're much more powerful than the public could ever imagine."

Fino said that he first met Coia in the 1970s, at a union convention, but didn't get to know him until the mid-1980s. He said that they dined and golfed together, and that Coia "always had his entourage with him." Fino said that the entourage included Connecticut Laborers' official Dominick Lopreato, who was convicted last year of taking bribes for steering union pension funds into corrupt real-estate investments.

Before getting to know Coia, Fino said, he was close to Coia's father. Over the years, in "numerous conversations" with the elder Coia and "other LCN [Mafia] people," Fino said the extent of the mob's control of the Laborers' became clear.

Fino discussed the 1981 indictment in Miami of the Coias and several other Laborers' officials and mobsters, including the late New England mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca, for allegedly taking bribes for union insurance contracts. The case against the Coias was later dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.

The elder Coia confided in Fino that "he felt sorry he'd gotten his son involved," Fino testified.

Tabloid testimony.

Rep. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., led yesterday's Democratic counterattack against Fino. In the day's most bizarre exchange, Schumer waved a 1994 issue of the the tabloid the Globe with the headline "O.J. Didn't Do It!" The story quoted Fino about Simpson's alleged involvement with the Buffalo mob, and drug trafficking during Simpson's days as a football player with the Buffalo Bills.

Fino said he was paid $9,000 for the story, at a time when he needed the money, after having been cut loose from the FBI's payroll.

Who was O.J.'s mob connection? Schumer demanded.

"Mike Militello," said Fino, referring to a Buffalo nightclub owner.

A few minutes later, mocking supermarket tabloids about space aliens, Schumer said,"Mr. Fino, do you believe space aliens are linked to the mob?"

Fino said that he had worked for the Laborers', passing along his information about Coia to the union's chief prosecutor, former federal prosecutor Robert D. Luskin, and its inspector general, former FBI official W. Douglas Gow.

Under questioning from Schumer, who defended the internal union cleanup, Fino said that he had faith in Luskin and Gow to do the right thing, and that if they investigate Coia and didn't press charges, he would be satisfied with their judgment.

Asked if he felt it proper that Coia remain as union president, Fino replied, "As long as he doesn't have any say-so over the cleanup, I have no opinion. If he has input and say-so over the people doing the cleanup, I would have a problem."

Fino had testified for just over an hour when McCollum dismissed him. Fino stood up before putting on his hood, but it happened too quickly for a clear glimpse of his face.

Then, escorted by two committee staffers, he left the room.

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