October 23, 1997 New York Times

Laborers' Union Chief to Face Ouster for Crime Ties


A former federal prosecutor hired to clean up the Laborers International Union of North America plans to bring internal charges to oust union president Arthur A. Coia for associating with members of organized crime, government officials said. Coia would be tried before a union hearing officer, also a former federal prosecutor, in an unusual arrangement in which the Justice Department has essentially given an in-house union prosecutor the task of rooting out corruption in the 700,000-member union. The charges, labor experts said, would represent the first time that an internal union monitor has moved to oust a union's president.

Under the arrangement with the laborers, the Justice Department reserves the right to bring criminal charges against Coia or any other official of the union. Republicans had criticized the Clinton administration for letting the union conduct its own investigation, but administration officials said Wednesday that the charges against Coia would indicate that the arrangement has worked well.

Still, a move to bar Coia from the union would in many ways embarrass the Clinton administration. Coia's union was one of the three most generous contributors to President Clinton's 1996 inauguration, buying $157,000 in tickets. The union has also been one of the biggest donors to Democratic coffers, giving the party and its candidates $2.6 million in the last campaign cycle. In addition, Hillary Rodham Clinton has spoken to a laborers' convention, and Coia and Clinton have become so friendly that they have exchanged expensive golf clubs as gifts.

The accusations come at a difficult time for the nation's labor movement, which has already been thrown off balance by the fund-raising scandal of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Coia is one of the nation's most prominent union leaders and has been elected president of the AFL-CIO's organizing committee at a time when labor is focusing on recruiting new members. Federal officials who spoke only on the condition of anonymity said that Robert Luskin, the laborers' in-house prosecutor, has told them he will move to bar Coia from the union on various charges, including associating with mobsters, acquiescing in letting mobsters run parts of the union and receiving favors from companies with which the union has contracts. These officials said Luskin has told them he will file the charges by the end of this month.

Throughout the investigation, federal prosecutors have looked over Luskin's shoulder, often giving him questions to ask Coia in the six depositions he has made. Howard Gutman, a lawyer for Coia, said, "As far as I know, no final decisions have been made on whether or not to bring charges." In an interview last year, Coia said, "I am not controlled, never were, not influenced by, and never were," by organized crime.Coia is the son of a former secretary-treasurer of the laborers' union who federal prosecutors say worked closely with Raymond Patriarca, the crime boss of New England who died in 1984.

Coia does not fit the image of a traditional labor boss: he often drives Ferraris and he has an ocean-front mansion in his native Rhode Island.His union represents a varied group of low-paid workers, including brick carriers, asbestos removers, tunnel diggers and toxic-waste haulers.

Federal officials declined to discuss details of the charges that Luskin plans to bring. In the past, Justice Department officials have pressed Luskin to investigate Coia's friendship with Raymond Patriarca Jr., who, federal prosecutors say, inherited the position of crime boss of New England after his father died.

Federal investigators have also encouraged Luskin to examine a trip to Chicago in which union officials pushed Coia, according to his own testimony, to meet with people who Coia said he discovered at the time were Mafia figures. Coia said he was told to meet them to obtain permission to take a top position in the laborers' union. Coia said he was taken aback by that Chicago trip because it taught him the extent of mob involvement in the union. But federal prosecutors have questioned Coia's assertions as disingenuous, insisting that he long knew about the laborers' links to organized crime.

Federal investigators have also voiced concern that Coia once appointed John Serpico, a Chicago laborers' official who has admitted associating with mob leaders, to be a hearing officer on corruption cases within the union.

Government officials said it was possible that Coia would resign from the union and its presidency before charges were brought, thus rendering the internal investigation moot. But these officials said the evidence turned up in the internal investigation could be made available to the Justice Department for further investigation.

In an unusual move widely criticized by congressional Republicans, the Justice Department dropped plans in 1995 to file a 212-page civil racketeering complaint that sought to oust Coia and take over the union on the ground that it was wedded to organized crime. To avoid lengthy and expensive litigation, the Justice Department agreed to let the laborers name an in-house prosecutor and conduct its own anti-corruption investigation.

Luskin, a former organized-crime prosecutor now in private practice in Washington, declined to discuss the status of the case against Coia. He said that in his three years as in-house prosecutor he has never commented on the status of an investigation.

In a telephone interview, Luskin said: "We have stated publicly that we are aggressively pursuing any credible allegations against Coia. This is a clear component of the commitment we made to the Justice Department, and we have and will fulfill that commitment."

But federal officials said that in mid-October Luskin told them that he would file formal charges that would be heard by an internal union judge, Peter Vaira, who was U.S. attorney in Philadelphia and head of the Federal Organized Crime Strike Force in Chicago.

Under its 1995 consent decree with the laborers, the Justice Department reserved the right to take over the union if it grew unhappy with the progress of the union's internal housecleaning. In addition, the Justice Department maintained the right to indict laborers' officials independent of whatever internal charges are brought against them.

While the charges against Coia are an embarrassment to Clinton, they can also be seen as a vindication. Pointing to Coia's friendship with Clinton and to the laborers' donations to Democrats, Republicans have repeatedly asserted that the Clinton administration had agreed to a sweetheart deal in letting Coia's union police itself.

But Justice Department officials defended the arrangement as a money-saving experiment to see whether a union could cleanse itself.

Clinton administration officials are now pointing to the charges against Coia to assert that the agreement was an effective mechanism to clean up the laborers, while saving the federal government years of expensive litigation.

John Russell, a Justice spokesman, said, "We're constantly vigilant with the consent decree and feel as if it's meeting its purpose."

Coia has repeatedly denied associating with mob figures and asserts that he has sought to rid the union of mob influences ever since he became its president in 1993.

He acknowledged, however, that some laborers' officials associated with organized crime. "My knowledge of pockets of corruption" in the laborers "is limited," Coia said last year. "I had an idea it was a good union. It might not have been as good as I thought." Some federal officials voiced fears that someone even more involved with organized crime might replace Coia if he was ousted by the in-house prosecutor.

Indeed, many labor leaders say Coia has been an exemplary union president. He has been gung-ho about organizing new members, investing millions of dollars in such an effort. He has fought for a higher minimum wage and against Republican efforts to reduce spending on occupational safety.

In the interview last year, Coia acknowledged knowing the younger Patriarca, saying they met innocently in a lawyer's office in the early 1980's when both Coias and the elder Patriarca were charged in a kickback scheme. Those federal charges were thrown out under the statute of limitations.

Coia, who breeds Rottweilers, said that after meeting the younger Patriarca they agreed to try to mate Rottweilers. The efforts failed to produce puppies.

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