Coia's motives for cleanup at issue

Prosecutors don't know if he did it because he is clean or because the government is watching.

Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- After two days of congressional hearings into the Laborers' International Union of North America and its general president, Arthur A. Coia, all the questions about mob influence and effective reform boiled down to one: Who's the puppet and who's the puppeteer?

On Jan. 11, 1994, the head of the Justice Department's organized-crime unit wrote a memo to a deputy assistant attorney general of the United States, noting that Hillary Rodham Clinton was planning to address a Laborers' convention in Florida.

"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," wrote Paul E. Coffey.

Playing on that image yesterday, the blunt-speaking Coffey led a congressional panel on a speculative tour through the mind of Coia, reflecting on the motives of a rising union leader who one day comes to his office, three blocks from the White House, to find a 212-page draft racketeering complaint on his doorstep.

Coia was absent yesterday from the cavernous congressional hearing room, which was sprinkled with Laborers' officials and some rank-and-file members. His lawyers had declined to make him available to subcommittee investigators before the hearing, and the Republicans declined to call him.

But Coia's presence -- like that of his father, the late Arthur E. Coia, the Laborers' longtime secretary-treasurer -- was palpable in the focus of questioning by Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on crime.

The Republicans turned up no evidence of any White House influence in the Justice Department's decision to leave Coia at the helm of the Laborers' union. A parade of Justice officials -- from former Asst. Atty. Gen. Jo Ann Harris to her successor, John C. Keeney, to Coffey and FBI agent Michael Ross -- testified that there was no pressure from the White House to protect a major Democratic Party fund-raiser.

In the Justice Department's draft racketeering complaint, submitted to the Laborers' union on Nov. 4, 1994, prosecutors asserted that Coia associated with and was controlled by organized crime, and demanded his immediate removal. Three months later, the government and the union signed an unprecedented agreement that left Coia in charge of internal reforms of the union.

The message from the prosecutors was that Coia remained in charge not because they believed he was clean, but because the government was watching closely. Up through February 1998, if the prosecutors don't like what they see, the deal allows them to "pull the pin": go to court, oust Coia and take control of the union.

"I don't know all the factors that went through his mind and how he weighed them," said Coffey yesterday, speaking of Coia. "But it's pretty evident to us, having handled all these cases . . . that what he decided was that the government was a bigger enemy than the mob.

His lawyers said he's going to do it because he wants to. Well, I don't know about that -- we're real skeptical. But the way this agreement works, he's got to do it. If he does it, maybe he survives and maybe he doesn't. But if he doesn't do it, for whatever reason, . . . it's a dangerous game."

Still under investigation Coia, in fact, remains the subject of investigation, by both the federal government and the union leader's own in-house investigators.

As part of the in-house probe of Coia, the union investigators revealed yesterday they have recommended that the Laborers' stop doing business with two Rhode Island companies, because of the companies' possible ties to organized crime.

W. Douglas Gow, a former FBI official hired as the union's inspector general, testified that the union is in the process of ending its business relationships with Viking Leasing, of Middletown, and Sophisticated Travel, of Providence. The latter is owned by Joan Kilberg, whose husband, Arnold Kilberg, runs an accounting firm that did work for Raymond J. "Junior" Patriarca, the jailed former New England mob boss.

Gow declined, after testifying, to discuss the alleged organized-crime ties or his ongoing investigation.

Robert D. Luskin, a former Justice Department lawyer hired by the Laborers to prosecute union corruption, said that the probe of the two Rhode Island companies and how they came to do business with the union is part of the Coia inquiry, but he declined to elaborate.

"You should not infer from that, however, any wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Coia," said Luskin.

Indebted to Mafia? After testimony on Wednesday from former Laborers' official and government informant Ronald M. Fino that Coia answered to the mob, much of the questioning yesterday was spent on the extent of Coia's alleged mob ties.

Rep. Steven Buyer, R-Ind., asked the Justice Department's Coffey whether he thought Coia could have risen within the Laborers' organization without the blessing of the Mafia.

"It's not clear to us," said Coffey, "if Mr. Coia took office with affirmative mob approval and endorsement, or if he inherited it because he was part of a group of longstanding influence within the union," a group that included Coia's father.

What was clear, said Coffey, was that from the time Coia became president of the Laborers' union in February 1993 until the Justice Department came knocking in November 1994, "the union leadership at LIUNA sat on its hands. They had done nothing that we could see to substantially improve the situation with respect to LIUNA and the mob. That's why we came knocking." Coffey said he had been surprised at how Coia answered the government's knock. Unlike such corrupt union leaders as Jimmy Hoffa and Jackie Presser, who fought the government every step of the way, Coffey said that Coia was "the first guy to come to the government and say, `It ain't true and I can prove it ain't true.' "

It was Coia's unique approach, backed by his willingness to hire former federal prosecutors and FBI agents to spearhead internal reforms, that led the Justice Department to negotiate its agreement with the union.

Coffey said that although the jury is still out on Coia's motives, it's more important to judge him by his actions in instituting reform.

"These aren't the actions of a puppet," said Coffey. "Is he a puppet today? I don't know. I think Mr. Coia has elected to turn . . . on La Cosa Nostra because he has no choice."

The crime-subcommittee members pressed Coffey and other Justice Department officials on why they left Coia in charge of the union after naming him a target of their initial racketeering probe.

"It's a fair question: `Hey, what's the deal with Arthur Coia, if he is what we say he is?' " said Coffey. "But don't forget that the main goal is to stick it to the mob. No matter who Arthur Coia is or wants to be or would be, we're looking over his shoulder."

Subtle distinctions At one point, Coffey and FBI agent Ross found themselves explaining the subtle distinctions between being an "associate" of the mob and "associating" with mobsters. An associate, they said, is someone who is under the direct influence of organized crime, and willingly so.

Associating with the mob, said Ross, is when a person through "past associations has shown a nexus and an affiliation with La Cosa Nostra."

In its draft complaint, the Justice Department accused Coia of associating with and being controlled by mobsters.

"That's one of the issues in the agreement," said Coffey. "Did [Coia] have no choice, or did he embrace [mob control of the Laborers']? We're not sure. I think he got the job because of his father, who was mobbed up."

By the time the younger Coia took control, said Coffey, "the wheels were coming off" La Cosa Nostra's union machine. The elder Coia and longtime president Angelo Fosco had died; other mob-tainted union men were being prosecuted.

"I think [the mob] may have inherited a guy they thought they could control because of his father," said Coffey. "They had high hopes. But I'm not sure those hopes are realized today. . . If you're an LCN member, this isn't one of your better days."

Internal cooperation
Later yesterday, the internal union prosecutors, Luskin and Gow, joined the Justice Department officials in defending the agreement between the government and the union, and in asserting that Coia had not meddled in their investigation.

"The easiest thing for the Justice Department and the Laborers to do was to have gone to war," Luskin testified. "It took tremendous courage on the part of career prosecutors to listen to what we had to say . . . and allow us the opportunity to try to attack [Mafia] corruption on our own."

Luskin ticked off the achievements of the internal cleanup: taking over the mob-riddled local in Buffalo, N.Y.; purging corrupt locals in New York City; removing mob-tainted union officials in Chicago, Cleveland and St. Louis; implementing reforms to ensure open union elections.

Under questioning from the subcommittee's Republican chairman, Rep. Bill McCollum, of Florida, Luskin echoed Justice Department testimony that prosecutors had not been satisfied with Luskin's questioning of Coia, because Luskin had not been sufficiently aggressive.

But Luskin said that the union is continuing to question Coia, with a third deposition scheduled next week.

In response to a question from McCollum, Luskin said that his law firm had billed the Laborers' union $1.8 million in the 18 months since Luskin had been hired.

Republican Congressmen quibbled with the ground rules by which the Justice Department-Laborers' agreement allows the government to seize the union, and said that the union lawyers could still engage the government in a lengthy and costly legal challenge.

Justice Department and union officials testified that the government nearly moved to seize the union last fall, when it resisted the department's demands for election reforms.

Republicans said that the union's lawyers had threatened to file a lawsuit, charging bad faith by the government.

Justice's Coffey and internal union prosecutor Luskin said that nothing ever came of the controversy, and that the union agreed to the government's demands.

"As long as we do it in good faith," said Coffey, "it's bulletproof. I'm not afraid of any lawsuits."

Coffey also reiterated that he's not afraid to have Coia removed from his position as head of the union if either federal or in-house investigators uncover any wrongdoing. In the meantime, he said, the government will be watching.

"The jury's out because he did what puppets don't normally do," said Coffey. Now, he added, "the jury's still out whether he's sincere or just treading water hoping he survives."

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