By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal Washington Bureau
Jan. 8, 1999
WASHINGTON -- With kickback and mob-association charges still pending against Laborers Union General President Arthur A. Coia, Atty. Gen. Janet Reno announced yesterday that the government will extend its supervision of the union's in-house cleanup for another year.
But the extension of the four-year-old deal to rid the union of Mafia corruption loosens the Justice Department's supervisory power -- a change that Laborers dissidents immediately criticized.
Reno told her first news conference of the year that the Justice Department and the union would tack a fifth year on to the unprecedented agreement that has permitted Coia, 55, of Barrington, to preside over the cleanup of his own union.
Reno would not comment on the performance of the union-run anticorruption office, which brought charges against Coia 14 months ago.
Scott R. Lassar, the U.S. attorney for the Chicago area -- a mob stronghold where the federal case against the union was developed -- said, "While progress has been made, this extension recognizes that additional time is needed to complete efforts to eliminate corruption from the union."
Lassar said the extension gives the Laborers-Justice agreement "the chance to be successful."
"It's good for everybody," said Robert D. Luskin, the former federal prosecutor who heads the internal cleanup and also acts as attorney for the union executive board in its negotiations with the government.
"LIUNA [the Laborers International Union of North America] fully intends to continue with the reform. The Justice Department keeps LIUNA moving ahead with it," Luskin said. But if the government decides the cleanup is not working, "the Justice Department can do something about it."
That remedy -- the power to seize control of the union -- is now limited in two respects, however. At the union's request, new language in the extended agreement would make it easier to demand a judicial review of any Justice Department decision to take over the Laborers, Luskin said.
The extension language also makes it easier for the union to cut its reform budget. That is an acknowledgement that the cleanup has been a costly proposition, Justice Department officials have said.
"We should spend less," said Luskin, who estimated that the cleanup has cost the union about $20 million over the past three years. The new language is a nod to the fact "that the union does other good things besides throw bad guys out," Luskin said.
Laborers general counsel Michael S. Bearse said the renewed agreement "acknowledges that we have had real success and operated in good faith. It also provides greater rights and protection for our union."
But Jim McGough, a former Laborer from Chicago who has spent the last several years organizing a network of union dissidents, criticized the lighter federal hand in the extension.
Because of the provision for cuts in the anticorruption program, McGough said, "they won't have the investigative staff and the freedom to investigate what they need to investigate."
The stricter terms of a government takeover threat "lets the union's leadership off the hook before they've done the job," said McGough.
He said he is concerned that the extension bespeaks a weakened commitment by the Justice Department to ridding the union of organized crime.
"They're worried abut terrorism and other stuff. Organized crime is not a Justice Department priority at the top," McGough said. "Organized crime in the Laborers Union is on the small end of the totem pole."
Craig Oswald, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, disputed McGough's concern. "The new language contains a workable standard that would not preclude us from implementing the consent decree, if we have to."
"On the budget, they have to consult with us before they make any material change. So if they say to us, `We're broke and we can't afford this cleanup anymore,' " the Justice Department would be able to trigger the takeover of the union, said Oswald, one of the prosecutors who has been working on the Laborers cleanup for several years and helped to negotiate the extension.
Coia signed a three-year pact with the Justice Department on Feb. 13, 1995, vowing to purge the Laborers of "pockets of corruption" and steer the union from under the cloud of a federal takeover.
Instead, the internal union prosecutors charged Coia himself Nov. 6, 1997, with permitting mob influence in the union and taking kickbacks from a union vendor. The charges were heard during a secret internal hearing last spring.
The union-hired hearing officer who acted as judge, former U.S. Attorney Peter F. Vaira, of Philadephia, has yet to render a decision in the Coia case.
Vaira did not answer an inquiry this week about when he will issue his judgment, but Luskin said he expects Vaira's decision on Coia "within the month."
Coia has denied all the charges.
The charges, which could cost Coia his union card and $254,000-a-year job, marked a dramatic turnaround for the Rhode Island-bred labor leader. According to a draft of federal racketeering charges that led to the cleanup deal, Coia's late father, the union's New England chieftain, was also a long-time associate of the late Raymond L.S. Patriarca, the region's organized crime boss.
The younger Coia become the union's president in early 1993 and quickly used the position to became a top Democratic fundraiser and a friend of President Clinton.
But in 1997, Luskin charged Coia with having, between 1990 and 1993, "knowingly associated with members of organized crime, knowingly permitted organized-cime members to influence the affairs of LIUNA, breached his constitutional and fiduciary duties to the union and improperly accepted benefits from a LIUNA service provider."
At congressional hearings on the Laborers in 1996, Douglas W. Gow, the ex-FBI agent who is the union's chief internal investigator, said he had pressed the Laborers to stop doing business with two Rhode Island companies because of their alleged mob ties.
The companies were Viking Oldsmobile-Cadillac, of Middletown, which leased cars to the union, and Sophisticated Traveler, of Providence, which booked trips for union members.
Federal grand juries in several cities have been impaneled to investigate Laborers Union officials during the time of the in-house cleanup effort, but no charges have resulted.
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