Providence Journal

U.S. Loosens Its Grip On Laborers' Union

A new Justice Department deal with the union removes the threat of a federal takeover in a long-running case targeting corruption.

Journal Washington Bureau
January 21, 2000

WASHINGTON -- Five years after it pushed the Laborers' union to set up an internal anti-corruption unit, the Justice Department has loosened its power over the union, citing significant progress in rooting out organized crime.

But in an agreement announced yesterday by the union and the government, an independent election officer will have a stronger hand in imposing rules for the Laborers' international elections next year, according to the Justice Department.

Union and government officials said last month's early retirement by General President Arthur A. Coia, who was found guilty of conflict of interest in March last year, was not a condition for the new agreement.

Asst. Atty. Gen. James K. Robinson, who heads the Justice Department's Criminal Division, declined to say whether Coia, 56, of Barrington, faces federal charges tied to his conflict of interest with a union vender.

An internal union prosecutor charged in 1998 that Coia evaded federal taxes in an arrangement he made with the union vender, Rhode Island car dealer Carmine Carcieri, to buy a $450,000 Ferrari. But the union's internal judge declined to rule on the charge, saying it was the jurisdiction of federal prosecutors.

Several publications reported last fall that Coia had agreed to step down as part of a plea bargain, but the union denied those reports.

Yesterday's agreement was the latest revision in a deal that Coia struck with the Justice Department in February 1995 to avoid a federal takeover of the Laborers. The union agreed to create an in-house unit to investigate and prosecute organized crime inside the Laborers. The government retained the right to seize control of the union any time it chose.

Extensions of the deal weakened the government's power somewhat. But the new version, which runs through the union's next five-year election cycle, in 2006, for the first time removes the threat of a federal takeover similar to the one the government imposed on the Teamsters.

Under the new deal, the government must go to court for redress if it deems that the union has broken its agreement to continue the internal reforms.

Over the course of the five-year reform effort, Robinson and other officials said yesterday, 226 members have been expelled or forced out of the union -- 127 of whom had alleged ties to organized crime.

The new agreement will bring back Stephen B. Goldberg, a labor law professor from Chicago, as an independent officer to oversee next year's elections. Goldberg said yesterday that his first order of business will be to establish rules for fundraising by candidates in the upcoming elections.

Goldberg said one example of his new authority is a provision permitting him to order secret mail ballots in any contested election -- a rule that the union fought during the 1996 election. About 400,000 members are expected to be eligible to vote next year.

Until the government stepped in five years ago, Laborers officers had been chosen by delegates to an international convention -- traditionally controlled by a small elite that the government alleged was influenced by the Mafia.

Justice Department officials said the new agreement could improve chances for rank-and-file members to foster competition for high office in the Laborers' union. The union's officers ``all realize they've now got to get elected by the people they supposedly represent,'' said Tom Walsh, a Chicago prosecutor who has been involved in the Laborers case.

The union's chief lawyer, Michael Bearse, played down the significance of the changes in Goldberg's powers.

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