It's Still Unclear If Clintons Knew Of Probe

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur Coia

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 stuff."

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 Florida.

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 the union.

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'

Mikva, an avuncular former congressman and federal judge, handled yesterday's proceeding with an easy familiarity. He never showed ill temper or refused to take a question, but often deflected pointed queries with folksy bits of political wisdom.

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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