Friday February 19, 1993

Forward-Looking Coia Takes Helm

His history has linked Arthur Coia's name with those of Joseph Mollicone Jr. and the late Raymond L.S. Patriarca.


Journal-Bulletin Staff Writer


Arthur A. Coia wants to put past controversies behind him and look to the future as he takes the helm of the 400,000-member Laborers' International Union of North America.

Coia, 49, was elected general president last week, succeeding Angelo Fosco, who died after a 17-year reign.

In an interview at the union's Rhode Island headquarters, which is a South Main Street building named for his father, Coia said he was "frustrated" by recurring media questions about events connecting him with the late New England crime boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca, and, more recently, Joseph Mollicone Jr.

Coia said he wants to emphasize his achievements over the past three years as the Laborers' general secretary, including efforts to promote job training and develop new job opportunities for union members.

Instead, recent publicity about Coia has focused on a passbook in the vault of Heritage Loan & Investment Co. that bore the name "Arthur Coia," among others. Mollicone's alleged embezzlement at Heritage has been blamed for triggering the Rhode Island credit union crisis.

The passbook account, which appeared to have once contained more than $400,000, was established by the North American Laborers' Defense League and did not bear interest. Mollicone allegedly emptied it.

"I don't have any idea why the passbook had my name on it," Coia said. He said the account was established about 11 years ago to provide financial help to union members who need legal assistance. It is not a union-designated fund, however, Coia said, although he and others involved with the union contributed to the fund. He said he was not one of the trustees who oversaw the fund.

Coia said that Mollicone put a piece of white adhesive on the passbook and typed the name Coia on it.

"For some reason or other, Mr. Mollicone obviously put my name on this transaction," Coia said, speculating that it may have been because of Coia's position with the Laborers' union. "It's not a mysterious account at all."

He said he does not know why it was a non-interest-bearing account.

An earlier controversy dates to 1981 when Coia and his father, Arthur E. Coia, were charged in a federal racketeering case involving an alleged $2 million union kickback scheme. New England organized crime boss Patriarca was also a defendant in the case, which was dismissed because the indictment was filed after the statute of limitations expired.

Coia said there were "significant facts" that were never reported in the 1981 case, including the unreliability of the main government witness, Joseph Hauser. Prosecutors based most of their case on Hauser's testimony.

Referring to Hauser, a convicted felon, as a "total liar," Coia said: "The whole thing was full of baloney."

With about 406,000 members in the United States and Canada, the Laborers' union - which includes construction, municipal, hospital and nuclear waste removal workers - was ranked the nation's 12th largest as of 1991, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the AFL-CIO.

Coia said, however, that he thinks current membership is up to about 600,000.

He was elected last week to serve the remainder of Fosco's term until 1996.

Coia said his annual salary of about $180,000 as general president of the union in the United States and Canada is "probably less than corporate officials that serve in a similar role, but more than probably a worker that works in a supermarket."

Coia joined the Laborers' while a teenager and worked in construction jobs while he attended college and law school. His first post with the Laborers' was as business manager. He later became regional manager of the New England and eastern Canada district.

In 1989, Coia succeeded his father as general-secretary of the Laborers' union, the union's number two position, while maintaining a dual post as regional director. The union has about 50,000 members in New England, including about 10,000 in Rhode Island.

Coia was instrumental in steering the union's organizing efforts into nonconstruction areas, such as municipalities and hospitals. In Rhode Island, key memberships include non-uninformed City of Providence workers, and employees at the Veterans Administration Medical Center and Zambarano Memorial Hospital.

The Laborers' union supported the election of President Clinton and also backs the appointment of Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who has called for training programs to prepare workers for technological changes.

"The greatest asset is the working person," Coia said, "and that person has to be developed."

Coia said he endorses Clinton troubleshooter Ira Magaziner's proposal to establish nationwide, post-high school vocational training programs. Such programs could be financed by a combination of labor, management and government money, Coia said.

Many of the union's programs that are now in place nationally originated in New England, Coia said, including health and safety and training programs.

A successor as regional manager is expected to be named within two weeks. Coia said he has not decided whether to move to Washington, D.C., or commute from his home in Barrington.

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