Providence Journal

Sen. Kennedy Joins Tribute To Coia, R.I. Labor Leaders

By SCOTT MacKAY Journal Staff Writer
June 16, 2000

PROVIDENCE -- His voice was a shout, his arms were flailing, the sweat beads were running down his florid face and the crowd of 750 labor union leaders were on their feet at The Westin Providence last night, cheering as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy praised the accomplishments of the labor movement and urged them to organize more workers and to elect more Democrats.

"Someone who works 52 weeks a year, 40 hours a week ought not to live in poverty in the richest country in the world," Kennedy said to a huge ovation from the truest of the labor movement's truest believers.

Among those Kennedy paid tribute to last night at the 20th anniversary of the Institute for Labor Studies and Research was Arthur A. Coia, former general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America and a top Democratic fundraiser who was forced from office as part of a guilty plea to criminal tax fraud.

Kennedy, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Labor Committee, praised a Coia speech but later brushed aside a question about whether he was troubled by honoring a labor leader who pleaded guilty to a felony.

"This was a great tribute to the working families here in Rhode Island and the institute," Kennedy said. "That's why I am delighted and honored to be here. As I mentioned in my speech, the institute has done an extraordinary job and I'm glad to be here for that."

Sen. Jack Reed, who introduced Kennedy, said Coia deserved the recognition because "he's made significant contributions to the labor movement."

Coia was one of four union leaders honored last night at the dinner, which was attended by most of the state's Democratic Party hierarchy and everybody who is anybody in union circles.

The others honored were Phyllis E. Tennian, retiring president of the Providence Teachers Union; her husband, George W. Tennian, retired president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 328, and Edward J. McElroy, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers and a founder of the institute.

Several other Democratic leaders, including Secretary of State James R. Langevin and fellow U.S. House aspirant Kate Coyne-McCoy, also said they were not troubled by the criminal record of Coia, who before pleading guilty had presided over a federally monitored cleanup of the mob-influenced union. Several said they attended to support the work of the institute, which runs a wide array of education and training programs for workers.

"It's their choice who they honor," said Atty. Gen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former U.S. attorney, who attended. "I didn't even know who was being honored tonight. I thought it was Kennedy who was being honored."

Coia, 57, a lawyer, was forced out of the union presidency, fined and banned from Laborers' union affairs, as part of plea bargain in January on a charge of felony tax fraud.

Coia admitted to defrauding the State of Rhode Island and the Town of Barrington, where he lives, of nearly $100,000 in taxes on Ferrari sports cars that he bought with the help of a Laborers' union vendor, car dealer Carmine Carcieri, of Lincoln.

Coia staved off a federal racketeering suit and possible federal takeover of the union in 1995 by agreeing to set up an internal anti corruption unit, which the Justice Department has since credited with substantial progress in cutting the union's decades-old connections to the Mafia.

Part of the plea agreement -- customary in certain labor corruption cases but extraordinary for a tax-fraud case -- was that Coia step down as general president of the Laborers', one of the nation's largest construction unions, and be banned from all future union affairs.

Coia and his union have long been big players in the chase for campaign money. The union's various political committees contributed more than $2.6 million in regulated and unregulated, so-called "soft money" donations in the 1996 election cycle; about $2.2 million in 1998 and more than $1.1 million so far in 1999 and 2000. More than 90 percent of this money went to the Democratic Party or Democratic candidates, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money.

While money from organized labor is important, it is dwarfed by contributions from business and corporate interests. Business typically outspends labor -- by a margin of about 15 to 1 in recent elections.

Sen. Kennedy's son, Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy, and Rep. Robert A. Weygand were both scheduled to attend last night but stayed in Washington because of House business.

Democratic state Sen. William V. Irons, D-East Providence, said he attended to honor such state labor leaders as Phyllis Tennian and Frank Montanaro, president of the state AFL-CIO.

"In the last five or six years, the labor movement in this state has been led by really progressive people who recognize they have to work pragmatically with business . . . to share the fruits of prosperity for their members," Irons said.

Others in the labor movement were troubled by what they viewed as a step in the rehabilitation of a tainted union leader's reputation. "It's bad for the union. It's bad for the labor movement to reward the guy," said Ron Nobili, business manager of Laborers' Local 665 in Bridgeport, Conn.

"It's pitiful," said Herman Benson, of the New York-based Association for Union Democracy. "I have a high regard for Ted Kennedy but here you have a great liberal Democrat standing side-by-side with a labor leader who has been forced out of his union because of corruption charges."

In brief remarks, Coia never mentioned his legal troubles, focusing instead on the need for the unions to form allegiances with elected officials such as Reed and Kennedy and to battle the "right-wingers who hate the poor and the working people."

Said state Democratic Party Chairman William Lynch, "I don't think you judge someone's lifetime of achievement by what even he would admit was an error in judgment."

-- With reports from John E. Mulligan of the Journal Washington Bureau

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