This Week's Laborers Convention Presents Challenges For Coia

Coia and his allies are expected to prevail in the first secret convention ballot in the union's history.

Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

Related story:Time to rebuild Teamsters, says Hoffa

WASHINGTON -- Arthur A. Coia, the target of federal and congressional investigations for alleged Mafia ties, is in Las Vegas this week for his triumphant nomination to a second term as general president of the Laborers International Union of North America.

The Rhode Islander, who testified under oath last year to how he once got a Chicago mob capo's personal blessing for the union's No. 2 job, is running as a reformer who averted a federal takeover of the Laborers -- and his own ouster -- by starting an internal cleanup.

"And we are winning! This union is winning the battle against corruption and organized crime," Coia wrote in his latest monthly message to the Laborers, founded in 1903 as the hod carriers union and dominated for most of its history -- from local hiring halls to headquarters in Washington -- by Mafia chieftains who handpicked union officers.

Coia, 53, appears certain to dominate the field of three candidates competing for 2,200 delegate votes in the first secret convention ballot in the annals of the Laborers. Nominees will face the rank-and-file this fall in another Laborers first: a secret, democratic ballot, with one vote for each of the union's 750,000 members.

But Coia and his allies -- favored to win most, if not all, of the 11 vice presidential elections -- may find a couple of clouds on the desert horizon this week.

For one thing, Coia faces opposition, including an alleged Chicago mob figure and an aging New York construction worker who hopes to whip up the union's historically feeble dissident movement.

For another, there is the presence of a small federal prosecution team, on hand to observe the elections. After this week, the prosecutors will scrutinize an internal union investigation of an allegation of illegal election campaign finances that could reach into Coia's office.

The rag-tag band of Laborers dissidents is led by Bernard "Barney" Scanlon, a general building laborer from Long Island's notorious Local 66 who has never before stood for union office.

"I'm going out there like a lamb, knowing I'm going to (lose)," said Scanlon, 70. He has bucked corrupt local leadership, and sometimes been blackballed for his efforts, since the New York mob moved in more than two decades ago.

He declared for general president only last month, when another longtime dissident failed to make the ballot.

Scanlon had his own problems winning delegate status, a prerequisite for his candidacy for general president. "The intimidation factor is so great that I couldn't get anyone to nominate me, for fear of punitive action. I had to nominate myself," said Scanlan.

But 225 of Scanlon's co-workers voted for him in the secret ballot of Local 66 membership, giving him the right to challenge Coia in Las Vegas.

"That's a good example of what people do when they get an opportunity to cast a secret ballot. You get different results than when you have to stand up in public," said Craig Oswald, an assistant U.S. attorney from Chicago who worked on the draft racketeering suit against Coia and the union that triggered the internal reform effort now underway.

"That's probably why the union hierarchy was so reluctant to embrace this election reform" during negotiations with the government last year, Oswald said.

Scanlon's Local 66 figures in that 212-page draft case against Laborers leadership. It describes how top officers of the local pleaded guilty to bribery and drew prison terms in 1989. The document alleges that the international union's leadership imposed a trusteeship on Local 66, to avoid a government racketeering suit. But the new local leadership still answered to New York's Luchese family of La Cosa Nostra, according to the draft.

During this period, Coia was Laborers general secretary-treasurer, successor to his late father, Arthur E. Coia. He became general president in February 1993.

A different sort of challenger to Coia is Bruno Caruso, who is president of Chicago Local 1001 and was named in the draft racketeering suit as the son of a Chicago Mafia family member.

The Justice Department presented Coia with that draft racketeering suit, which accused him of running the Laborers for the benefit of organized crime, late in 1994.

Coia averted a federal takeover of the union and kept his job by offering a union-run cleanup -- with the government retaining the power to take over and throw him out if it became dissatisfied with the results.

Never before in the federal wars against labor corruption had a union chief told the government: "It ain't true and I can prove it ain't true," said Coffey, who had once portrayed Coia as a "mob puppet."

Coia's actions in setting up the in-house anti-corruption team since he signed his agreement with the government in February, 1995 "aren't the actions of a puppet,"said Coffey. "I think Mr. Coia has elected to turn . . . on La Cosa Nostra because he has no choice."

Later last year, however, the lawyers for Coia and the union resisted the government's demand for new rules governing this election until the Justice Department played its only powerful card: the takeover threat. Even then, Coia's team won rules requiring only the top two officers to be elected on the fully democratic principle of one-member, one-vote.

The dissidents argue that the old-style convention-delegate election of the 11 union vice presidents this week protects entrenched local and regional power.

Still, this week's glitzy proceeding -- which AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney and possibly Labor Secretary Robert Reich are to address -- will be a far cry from the nightmare scene that some dissidents remember from conventions past.

Laborer Chris White of Alaska has told of how he was jostled and verbally abused during the booze-drenched Florida convention of 1981; and how, with Coia's father presiding, fellow-dissident Dennis Ryan of Iowa was beaten during his speech in support of a futile maverick candidacy for general president.

White lost his local election for delegate last summer, which killed his bid to challenge Coia, but he plans to be in Las Vegas to help Scanlon collect the 5 percent of delegate votes necessary to put him on the fall ballot.

Another potential cloud over Coia's nomination is the pending complaint about election campaign finances, now under the jurisdiction of the internal cleanup team.

According to Oswald, "We've got some credible evidence of a campaign fund, to which people at headquarters allege that they were forced to contribute as a condition of their employment, that may involve misuse of union funds and that may involve extortion," said Oswald. There is also "credible evidence" that may tie "Mr. Coia and others in the upper echelons of the union" to the campaign fund irregularities, Oswald said. He stressed, however, that Coia has denied any involvement and that the internal union procedings in the case won't be concluded for some weeks.

Coia's travails leading up to the convention have not kept him from reaching for the grandest possible imprimatur of his leadership. Here is one of the listings on advance copies of Tuesday's program at the Las Vegas Hilton Convention Hall, following floor nominations of candidates for general president:

"12:15 PM Speaker-President William Clinton"

The Clinton-Gore campaign in Washington says there is no such date on Mr. Clinton's traveling schedule.

Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.

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