By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal Washington Bureau
Dec. 7, 1999
-- Laborers' union General President Arthur A. Coia, the Providence-born
lawyer who once enjoyed a friendship with President Clinton through
his political and fundraising clout, announced his resignation
Coia, who has presided over a tempestuous
effort to clean up one of the nation's biggest and most corruption-plagued
construction unions, will become Laborers "general president
emeritus" on Jan. 1, drawing the equivalent of his $335,516
a-year salary for life.
Coia was found guilty of conflict of interest
and fined $100,000 last March by the anti-corruption unit that
he had helped to create in order to stave off a federal takeover
of the union almost five years ago. The same internal tribunal
cleared Coia of improper dealings with mobsters.
Coia has also been reported to have negotiated
a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in connection with the
conflict of interest with a union vendor. But the Justice Department,
the union and Coia's attorney shed no light yesterday on whether
that matter is still under negotiation.
"For far too many years, my position
in the Union has caused me to be investigated non-stop, top to
bottom and inside out," Coia, 56, of Barrington, said in
a printed statement. "Today, the scale has finally tipped
in favor of those I have put second for far too many years,"
Coia was sanctioned for conflict of interest
in his dealings with Rhode Island Cadillac dealer Carmine Carcieri,
who helped him avoid taxes on his purchase of a fancy race car
- a $450,000 Ferrari -- in 1991.
At the time, Carcieri's car dealership held
the union's car leasing contract, worth more than $1 million a
year. The Laborers' internal hearing officer, Philadelphia lawyer
Peter F. Vaira, ruled in March that Carcieri's favors to Coia
were not kickbacks, as charged by the union's in-house prosecutor.
But Vaira refused to rule on the internal
prosecutor's charge that the Coia-Carcieri dealings involved felony
federal tax evasion and civil tax fraud. Vaira said he would be
surprised if the tax matter had not been referred to federal authorities.
The New York Times, The Providence Journal
and others reported in October that Coia was to resign as part
of a plea-bargain with federal prosecutors, in connection with
his dealings with Carcieri.
The Justice Department refused comment on
whether it is still investigating the Coia-Carcieri dealings.
Coia's lawyer, Howard Gutman, was asked three times whether Coia
was negotiating a plea agreement with federal prosecutors on his
dealings with Carcieri.
"Coia's future is even brighter than
his past," Gutman answered each time.
COIA BECAME president of the Laborers in
1993 and swiftly made himself one of the Democratic Party's biggest
fundraisers. Controlling union political contributions and backing
the administration on key policies, he became a prominent ally
of President Clinton.
Coia was a frequent White House visitor who
had access to top Clinton aides and exchanged fancy golf clubs
and other presents with the president. He got Hillary Rodham Clinton
to make a speech at a union convention, despite the advice of
federal prosecutors who were investigating his union.
Coia has also been a backstage player in
Rhode Island politics. His endorsement was a key to Lincoln C.
Almond's election as governor in 1994.
Later that year, the Justice Department presented
Coia with a draft racketeering suit that accused him of tolerating
Mafia influence in the union and called for a federal takeover
of the union. Instead, Coia negotiated a deal in February 1995
that let him preside over an internal cleanup of the union.
The Justice Department retained extensive
supervisory powers over the union, including the option to seize
control of the Laborers if it deemed that the cleanup wasn't working.
The union and the Justice Department have
said the effort has produced results, including the ouster of
many corrupt union officials. Coia said "history will judge"
the cleanup "as my greatest contribution."
The same cleanup led to the charges adjudicated
against Coia in secret union hearings last year and concluding
in the March findings and fine.
Terence M. O'Sullivan, 44, a long-time Coia
lieutenant, has been elected as Coia's replacement by the union's
governing board, which is dominated by Coia allies elected on
his slate at the last Laborers' convention, in Las Vegas, in September
That convention rewrote the union constitution
to let the board raise Coia's pay at any time. The board used
that power last year to give him a 34-percent raise, to $335,516.
His pension will be based on that pay.
Union spokesman David Roscow said the terms
of Coia's resignation call for him to be paid the "minimal"
difference between his current pay and his vested pension, which
Union dissidents bitterly attacked the arrangement.
"This is a golden parachute" for "a guy who is
stepping down under a cloud," said Alex Corns, a hod carrier
from Daly City, Calif. "He's left this union in a shambles.
He got the Ferrari and the membership is being asked to pay him
$300,000 or $400,000 for the rest of his life? Members who have
to go to the bathroom in little wooden outhouses because we can't
negotiate decent working conditions?
"That's insane," said Corns, who
criticized the Justice Department for permitting Coia to make
such a resignation deal.
Justice Department spokesman John Russell
said prosecutors knew of the terms of Coia's resignation. But
he declined to comment on why the Justice Department permitted
Gutman, Coia's lawyer, said, "The dissidents in [the Laborers' union] are among the most poorly informed people. Arthur Coia has done more to advance the cause of [the union] and to clean up the union than any labor leader in history."