Providence Journal

Coia Resigns As Head Of Laborers' Union

The Justice Department won't say whether it is still investigating a car deal that prompted reports this fall of a plea bargain in the works.

Journal Washington Bureau
Dec. 7, 1999

WASHINGTON -- 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 yesterday.

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," his family.

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 1996.

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 is smaller.

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 the arrangement.

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."

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