Administration suggest that charges against
the Laborers Union president would vindicate the Justice
Department's efforts to purge the union of organized-crime
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Reports of pending ethics charges against
Laborers Union General President Arthur A.
Coia piqued the interest yesterday of congressional investigators
probing President Clinton's campaign finances.
The Journal-Bulletin and the New York Times
reported yesterday that the union's internal anticorruption unit
has told the Justice Department it will charge Coia this month
with tolerating Mafia influence in the union and with accepting
Coia's Washington lawyer, Howard Gutman,
said yesterday, "My understanding is that there has been no decision
one way or the other on whether to charge" Coia.
Justice Department officials have said, however,
that the former federal prosecutor in charge of the
union's internal investigations, Robert D. Luskin, has notified
the department of plans to file the internal charges by
Officials suggested that charges against
Coia would vindicate the Justice Department's efforts to purge
the Laborers Union of organized-crime influence.
The stories about Coia got the attention
of congressional investigators who have been aware of the
Rhode Island-born labor leader's extensive campaign contributions
to the Democratic Party. But they have not made
his ties to the Clinton White House a high investigative
Investigative sources on Capitol Hill said
yesterday that charges against Coia may increase the likelihood
that his fundraising for the Democratic Party and
his dealings with Mr.Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton
and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes will
once again become a focus of congressional probes.
But the sources stressed that there are serious
practical obstacles to renewed digging into the Coia case - to
which a House subcommittee devoted two days of investigative
hearings last year.
For example, Sen. Fred Thompson's special investigation into campaign finances faces a Dec. 31 deadline to close up shop.
That's a tight schedule for wrapping up the
inquiries already launched - from Vice President Al Gore's
controversial fundraiser at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles
to the sudden discovery of videotapes of White House coffees
for big donors.
It's not clear that Thompson has the time
to open an inquiry into Coia - or is willing to buck the likely
Democratic opposition to such an investigation.
Nor is it clear whether the Coia case fits
the Thompson committee's mandate to investigate fundraising for
the 1996 elections. Most of Coia's highest-level contacts
with Mr. Clinton took place in 1994. They began to
decline after November 1994, when the Justice Department
presented him with a 212-page draft racketeering suit that charged
him with mob associations and sought a takeover of the
Instead, Coia negotiated a February 1995
agreement under which the Justice Department let him preside over
an in-house cleanup of his mob-tainted union. The Justice
Department retained the right - until February - to
cancel the deal, oust Coia and seize control of the Laborers if
it decided the internal purge wasn't working.
But Sen. Don Nickles, D-Okla., one of the
Thompson committee's most aggressive questioners, said in an interview
yesterday, "Mr. Coia gave all this money to the Democrats
- hundreds of thousands of dollars - and all of a sudden this
deal came out that basically had all the charges against him dropped.
Mrs.Clinton gives a speech to the union at the same time and Mr.
Coia's on the overnight list, he's on the plane list, he's on
the golf-club list," said Nickles.
"It just looks bad. It looks suspicious.
I'm interested in looking at it." Coia - who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing
- exchanged gifts of fancy golf clubs with Mr. Clinton
some days before the Justice Department came knocking. But
Coia noted in an interview this year that he declined invitations
to fly on Air Force One with Mr. Clinton and never received an
invitation - suggested by a top Clinton campaign official - to
sleep over in the Lincoln Bedroom of the White House.
Thompson, R-Tenn., declined to comment yesterday
on whether he wants to look further into the Coia case.
But one Republican congressional staffer
said, "Chairman Thompson and his staff are looking at the
money the Laborers gave and if he can't get into it, the House
will. The Coia case will be pursued."
Meanwhile yesterday, Justice Department officials
said they will continue to press the Laborers internal
investigators to clean up the union. They pointed to the pending
charges against Coia as evidence that its method
of cleaning up the union is getting results.
Justice Department spokesman John Russell
said that "career attorneys in the Organized Crime Section
have closely monitored" the Laborers-Justice cleanup
agreement "and we feel that it suits its purpose in trying
to make sure that there's no organized crime influence in the
Russell said the Justice Department professionals
have prodded Luskin, the union-hired lawyer who acts as internal prosecutor, to pursue allegations against
At a news conference yesterday, Deputy Atty.
Gen. Eric H. Holder avoided direct comment on some key
questions that Atty. Gen. Janet Reno could face as the Coia case
Holder was asked, in light of yesterday's
stories, whether the Justice Department "is going to drop
your criminal investigation of Mr. Coia on these charges,"
if Coia resigns or is ousted.
"I can't really comment on that other
than to say that the Justice Department will continue to vigorously
do that which we are supposed to do under the terms"
of the agreement with the union, said Holder, the number-two official
at Justice, sitting in yesterday for the traveling Reno.
Holder declined comment on the question of
whether Coia's contributions to the Democratic Party and
his ties to Mr. Clinton could be proper territory for an
independent counsel to investigate.
Holder declined to answer what he called
a "what-if" question about whether the Justice Department would
let its power to seize the union lapse next February.
"Once the Justice Department pulls out
its influence over us, we'll just go back to business as usual,"
said Chris White, a Fairbanks, Alaska, bus driver and member
of the Laborers small dissident movement.
White said Coia may rightly be able to claim
some successes for his in- house anticorruption program,
particularly the efforts to remove mob influence from Laborers
units in Chicago and Buffalo.
But White said the rank-and-file Laborer
has yet to taste the promised benefits of reform in such key arenas
as the method of doling out jobs at the local hiring hall.
"The local bosses still have the power
to keep out the dissident," White said.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal
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