RICHARD W. STEVENSON
July 26, 1996
The Justice Department said today that White
House officials had exerted no influence over its handling of
a case involving a union leader with reputed ties to organized
crime who has been a major Democratic campaign contributor.
John C. Keeney, the acting head of the Justice
Department's criminal division, told a House subcommittee that
the labor leader, Arthur A. Coia, president of the Laborers International
Union of North America, had not received what the witness termed
a "sweetheart deal" in negotiating an agreement that
allowed him to retain his post even though the Government believed
that he was under the control of the Mafia.
Documents issued at hearings of the subcommittee
today and on Wednesday suggested that the White House had been
made aware of the Justice Department's investigation of Mr. Coia
as early as January 1994, more than a year before the department
struck its deal with him.
Hillary Rodham Clinton subsequently made
at least one speech to the union, and President Clinton met with
Mr. Coia in the Oval Office late in 1994, presenting a golf club
to him as a gift.
The department's investigators concluded
in 1994 that the union had been dominated by the Mafia for decades
and that Mr. Coia was a "puppet" of the mob. Although
the department drafted a civil racketeering suit naming Mr. Coia
as a defendant, the suit was never filed, and the department agreed
to a settlement that, while requiring sweeping changes within
the union, allowed Mr. Coia to stay in office. Similar actions
against other unions in the past had led to the ouster of their
"I state flatly that neither the White
House nor anyone associated with the White House has exerted any
influence whatsoever over our decisions and actions in this case,"
Mr. Keeney said today in testimony to the House panel, the Judiciary
Subcommittee on Crime.
As for why Mr. Coia had been allowed to retain
his job as part of the settlement, Mr. Keeney said that "the
answer is that no other union requested such an opportunity nor
agreed to the conditions" that the laborers' union accepted,
including strict outside oversight of its activities.
Leaders of other unions have termed the House
hearings a politically motivated response by Republicans to the
labor movement's strong opposition to Republican Congressional
candidates this year.
Since 1993, when Mr. Coia took control, the
union has given more than $2 million to Democratic candidates
and has become a major source of "soft money" for party
In a memorandum to Mr. Keeney on Jan. 11,
1994, Paul Coffey, chief of the Justice Department's organized
crime and racketeering section, said Mrs. Clinton and Labor Secretary
Robert B. Reich were scheduled to speak several weeks later to
a conference sponsored by the union.
Noting that a decision to take legal action
against the union and Mr. Coia was near, Mr. Coffey wrote, "It
is our understanding that Mrs. Clinton's staff has already been
alerted by the Labor Department" that the union and some
of its officials would be targets of the suit.
White House officials said today that no
one on the First Lady's staff could remember having been so informed
by the Labor Department, and the White House has previously said
that it was not involved with or informed about the subsequent
negotiations between the Justice Department and Mr. Coia.
But "regardless of any information that
may or may not have been conveyed to the President and First Lady,"
Michael D. McCurry, the White House press secretary, said today,
"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."
As events turned out, said Marsha Berry,
a spokeswoman for Mrs. Clinton, the First Lady declined the invitation
to speak to the union conference, which took place in early February
1994. Ms. Berry would not make any further comment.
Mrs. Clinton did address the union a year
later, about the time that Mr. Coia was finalizing his agreement
with the Justice Department.