It's Still Unclear If Clintons Knew
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur
WASHINGTON -- A House panel asked
administration officials at length yesterday about apparent high-level
efforts in 1994 to warn the White House about a racketeering probe
of Laborers' union chief Arthur A. Coia, a top Democratic fund-raiser
and a political ally of President Clinton.
But the House Judiciary Committee's
crime subcommittee turned up no answer to a central question:
Did President Clinton ever get the word?
Former White House counsel Abner J.
Mikva said that he had learned only this month of an Oct. 7, 1994,
FBI report sent to his office, which declared: "Coia is a
criminal associate of the New England Patriarca organized crime
family," and was under federal investigation.
About two weeks later, Coia, who is
general president of the Laborers' International Union of North
America, met with Mr. Clinton in the Oval Office, where Coia lobbied
for federal grants for his union and accepted the President's
gift of a golf club (installed soon thereafter in a display case at the
Laborers' union headquarters in Washington).
Mikva said that the FBI report had
never gone beyond the level of "a clerk or an intern"
who had requested it, as a check on Coia's possible appointment
to a presidential commission.
Subcommittee chairman Bill McCollum,
R-Fla., lamented what he called that "failure" to prevent
Mr. Clinton from keeping up contacts with Coia that were "clearly
disturbing to the Justice Department."
"If I'd had the information that
was in that report," said Mikva, "that certainly would
ring bells." As it happened, he was new in the job, and in
any event, he said, "the White House counsel doesn't screen
the President's schedule."
Mikva said the Oct. 7, 1994, report
represented the "lowest level" of FBI check -- ordered
because Coia was under consideration for the President's Advisory
Council on Competitiveness. (He never got the appointment.}
Former Asst. Atty. Gen. Jo Ann Harris
testified yesterday that she did not remember a related memo,
written in her name, to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, indicating in October
1994 that a Justice Department racketeering complaint was scheduled
to be filed within weeks, accusing Coia and his predecessors
at the union of "being puppets of the LCN" -- La Cosa Nostra (the Mafia).
Mikva said that "perception is
terribly important" for a president, "but you can't
just meet with altar boys and Sunday-school choir people."
Mikva defended Mr. Clinton's frequent
1994 contacts with Coia as "bill signings and them normal
things that somebody who's involved in public affairs in Washington
would go to."
McCollum disputed that, calling Coia's
Democratic fund-raising efforts, his gift exchanges with Mr. Clinton
and his White House meetings "far from routine, everyday
The White House issued a statement
last night about an earlier memo unearthed by the subcommittee
-- dated Jan. 11, 1994 -- in which a top Justice Department official
said it would be "prudent" to recommend that Hillary
Rodham Clinton avoid direct contact with Coia, "inasmuch as we plan to
portray him as a mob puppet" in the racketeering complaint.
That memo was in connection with a
planned televised speech by Mrs. Clinton to a union meeting in
Last night's White House statement
said, "No one on our staff has any recollection of being
informed at that time. Regardless of information that may or may
not have been conveyed to the President and the first lady, Mr.
Coia was, and is, the leader of a major organization representing working
Americans, and exchanging views with him and his organization
would be appropriate in any event." White House spokeswoman
Kathy McKiernan declined to elaborate.
The author of the January 1994 memo,
Paul E. Coffey, who heads the Justice Department's organized crime
and racketeering section, testified that he didn't know whether there had been any follow-up
on his suggestion to Deputy Asst. Atty. Gen. John C. Keeney that
someone "double-check" whether Mrs. Clinton's staff
had been told about the Coia investigation.
It was about a year later, Mikva testified,
that Mrs. Clinton was again asked to address the Laborers' Florida
conference, this time in person. By now, the Justice Department
had served notice of its draft racketeering complaint against
Mikva said that he and Deputy White
House Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes went through a formal process
of asking the Justice Department whether Coia was under investigation.
Mikva said he determined that Coia
was under investigation; he informed Ickes and urged Ickes to
"make sure the first lady is not alone -- is not seen alone
-- with Mr. Coia." Ickes did so, Mikva said.
Subcommittee chairman McCollum then
declared: "It is very regrettable that that perception was
not caught much earlier. This investigation was going on well
before the President had his contacts. . . . A year before you
learned of it . . . there was concern at the Justice Department
about the contact" between Coia and the Clintons.
"There was a failure" in
not getting the alerts to the first family earlier, said McCollum.
Inquiry called 'McCarthyism'
N.Y. Rep. Charles E. Schumer, however,
who is the panel's ranking Democrat, blasted the Republican inquiry
as "McCarthyism" and flashed a picture of former President
Bush with Angelo Fosco, Coia's Mafia-selected predecessor as general
president of the Laborers' union.
Schumer called the criticism of Mr.
Clinton's contacts with Coia "one of the more tawdry episodes
that I have seen . . . a cheap frenzy. . . ."
The partisan bickering brought the
hearing to a standstill when Rep. Melvin L. Watt, D-N.C., demanded
that partisan criticism by Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., be stricken from
the record. Barr apologized for branding the Democratic criticism
of the hearings "garbage."
When Schumer was asked in an interview
where the line should be drawn on presidential meetings with such controversial figures
as Coia, he said, "Suspicion of criminal wrongdoing."
As the two days of hearings wound
down, subcommittee chairman McCollum pronounced himself satisfied
that there was no evidence of political meddling in the Justice
Department's decision not to file its racketeering complaint and
instead let the union attempt its own house cleaning.
McCollum also praised the in-house
cleanup's evident successes thus far in ousting wrongdoers and
taking over mob-controlled locals.
But he criticized the portion of the
government-union agreement that leaves Coia in charge while his
union polices itself. McCollum said that Coia's cooperation with
government efforts to clean up the union sprang "only from self-protection
and self-promotion" after the Justice Department had served
notice of its intent to take over the union and oust Coia.
"If he can skate on this, he
will, and I hope that doesn't happen," McCollum told a team
of Justice Department witnesses, urging them to see that the union's
anti-corruption team presses its investigation of Coia.
But one document among the reams that
the panel dug out of White House and Justice Department files
summed up better than any other how confidently Coia has viewed
his future since striking the agreement with the Justice Department.
It is a handwritten memo, dated last
Nov. 19, from Democratic National Committee chairman Donald E.
Fowler to Deputy White House Chief of Staff Ickes and an associate.
It reads in full:
"Arthur Coia, Pres of Laborers'
International Union, would like a speaking role at the '96 Convention.
He has been a very good supporter of the Pres + the Demo Party."
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