Laborers' Official: Dissent Is Suppressed

A Hartford union member tells a congressional panel that he was assaulted because he challenged an incumbent of the local.


Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau

May 5, 1998

WASHINGTON -- A Hartford construction worker told a congressional panel yesterday that he was assaulted during a union meeting last summer after raising questions about expenditures by his Laborers' union local.

Testifying as one of several witnesses to alleged abuses of union democracy around the country, Laborers Local 230 Vice President Steve Manos said his forcible ejection from the meeting last July 30 was one of a series of reprisals for his decision to challenge an entrenched incumbent for higher office.

Manos said the episode shows that the 750,000-member union's three-year, government-supervised effort to purge itself of organized crime is ``a total sham'' -- a claim vigorously disputed by the Laborers' chief lawyer and by the former federal prosecutor who is running the union's internal cleanup.

``I absolutely disagree,'' with Manos's conclusion, the in-house prosecutor, Robert D. Luskin, said in an interview after the hearing. He cited steps his office has taken to partially corroborate Manos's charge and protect Manos's right to attend union sessions unimpeded.

But Rep. Cass Ballenger, R-N.C., declared after Manos's testimony, ``the Mafia calls the shots'' in the Laborers' union.

That was a reference to charges that Laborers General President Arthur A. Coia has taken kickbacks from a union vendor and permitted the mob to wield influence in the 750,000-member union of hod-carriers, food-processors, hazardous-waste handlers and municipal workers.

Coincidentally, Luskin's prosecution of those charges against Coia, 55, of Barrington, is being wrapped up in a secret union proceding elsewhere in Washington this week. Coia is expected to mount his defense against the internal charges when that union tribunal reopens in June.

LABORERS GENERAL Counsel Michael S. Bearse, also testifying under oath at yesterday's congressional hearing, strongly defended the union's cleanup effort and suggested possible political motivations behind Manos's charges.

Specifically, Bearse alluded to the fact that corrupt Laborers' bosses in New York and Chicago have been ousted and their fiefdoms placed under independent trusteeships.

Bearse also noted that the cleanup effort -- launched by Coia in 1995 to block a federal racketeering suit against the union -- also produced election reforms. Those included Coia's 1996 reelection in the Laborers' first-ever direct ballot by the rank and file.

In his testimony, Bearse made no mention of the fact that the Laborers accepted the direct-ballot reform only after the Justice Department threatened to use its power to seize control of the union. Bearse also omitted mention of sharp criticism by the Laborers' election monitor for what he called a failure to bring election reforms to the local level.

In an interview after the hearing, Bearse explained that union negotiators had not understood how strongly the Justice Department would insist on the one-member, one-vote reform. He said the election monitor may not be familiar with how local elections work.

MANOS'S TESTIMONY was the dramatic highlight in the kick-off hearing of a House panel's inquiry into what it called ``impediments to union democracy'' and the possible need for changes in a 1959 law meant to ensure union members' rights.

Armed with a transcript of his tape-recording of the incident and a hospital report of the minor injuries he suffered, Manos described how Charles LeConche, business manager of Local 230, verbally attacked him during the union meeting at Capriccio restaurant in Hartford last summer, after Manos raised questions about expenditures by the union.

Then, Manos testified, ``I was phsyically attacked, thrown to the concrete floor and then thrown bodily out of the fire-exit door'' by the local's sergeant-at-arms, as the rest of the union's local leadership looked on.

Bearse noted later that LeConche and the other union officials mentioned by Manos have challenged his version of the events and countercharged that Manos had conducted himself improperly.

Luskin said there is ``no dispute'' that Manos was physically thrown out of the meeting and confirmed that he had ``admonished'' the local union leaders against such actions.

But Luskin also noted -- while declining to disclose details of his investigation -- that he did not bring internal charges against LeConche or the other officials.

``Steve thinks that I have not done enough'' to protect his rights, while ``Mr. LeConche thinks that I have done too much'' in criticizing the local officials' conduct, Luskin said.

Manos alluded in his testimony to allegations by other dissident Connecticut Laborers that they have been punished for criticizing or opposing the policies of state union leaders, some of whom are closely aligned with Coia.

Ronald B. Nobili, business manager of Bridgeport Local 665, charges in a civil suit against the Laborers' statewide organization that he and his rank-and-file have been punished for nearly two decades for his refusal to contribute $5,000 to a fund for Coia's defense against federal kickback charges in the late 1970s. (That case against Coia, his late father and the late New England mob boss, Raymond L.S. Patriarca, was thrown out when a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired.)

Among those named in Nobili's suit are LeConche; and Dominick LoPreato, a close Coia friend and LeConche's predecessor as business manager of Manos's local. LoPreato is serving a federal prison term for taking $350,000 in bribes.

The Laborers have denied any wrongdoing in their response to the suit.

Ballenger, the North Carolina Republican, was blunt in his closing statement to the witnesses and their colorful array of supporters.

``As far as I can see, y'all are getting the shaft and it isn't management that's doing it to you,'' said Ballenger.

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