Providence Journal

Opinion

December 5, 2000

 

Coia Controversy:

 

M. Charles Bakst

Kennedy's letter makes you wonder

The fact that U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy asked the state Supreme Court to allow disgraced labor leader Arthur Coia to remain a member of the bar in good standing and continues to seek his advice raises tough questions about the congressman, Coia, and our political system.

Coia, who resigned as president of the Laborers' International union and became a convicted felon for evading nearly $100,000 in taxes on three expensive Ferrari sports cars, successfully used Kennedy and other current or past public figures in a campaign to stave off disbarment. The court voted instead to suspend Coia from practicing law for two years. Coia, 57, sought to get off with a censure.

On June 27, Kennedy, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, wrote that, in the public realm, Coia "conducts himself with an impressive level of integrity." He said Coia spent a career helping working men and women.

Kennedy and others, including, finally, the court itself, had a valid point in asserting that Coia's life should be viewed in its totality, including his charitable activities and efforts to fight corruption in his mob-tainted union.

Still, there is something distasteful about Kennedy's views and Coia's presentation to the court.

For example, Kennedy wrote that "many" of Coia's "travails" could be traced to rivals and foes. I don't know about that.

I do know that Coia pleaded guilty in federal court. In a deal negotiated with prosecutors, he was sentenced to two years' probation, was fined $10,000, agreed to pay $100,000 to the state and his home town of Barrington for the unpaid taxes, and was banned from holding any position of power within the Laborers for life. He was, though, permitted to collect a $250,000 salary as "general president emeritus."

In the matter of disbarment, Coia's lawyers asserted in a memo to the state Supreme Court that Coia was the first and only person ever charged with a federal offense regarding evasion of state and local car taxes and that no other Rhode Islander ever had been charged with a state crime regarding evasion of personal car taxes. But before you shed any tears for him, consider this:

If Coia felt he was unjustly singled out, he didn't have to accept the plea agreement. And consider what he told the federal judge: "I want to apologize to the Court for my actions. I take full responsibility for them."

It is no wonder that Kennedy felt beholden to Coia. The union donated more than $2 million to the DCCC and other Democratic causes in the last two years. But instead of seeking leniency for Coia in the disbarment matter, Kennedy could have told him to buzz off, that, while he has high regard for the Laborers, Coia's criminal activities proved to be an embarrassment both to the union and the party.

But even if you accept that the letter was a favor for past services, or written purely for humanitarian reasons, it is alarming that Kennedy continues to rely on Coia for advice on fundraising and other matters. Kennedy aide Tony Marcella said of Coia, "He knows the way Washington works."

I say: If you commit a felony, you shouldn't enjoy the luxury of being consulted by your congressman. Kennedy has 500,000 other constituents. Can't he find someone who knows his way around Washington but isn't a criminal?

But Kennedy's standing by Coia is more than a commentary on the congressman. It is a searing indictment of a system in which politicians depend on contributions and other support from big labor, big corporations, and other special interests. (There is a special affinity between the Laborers and Democrats. But Republicans, including Governor Almond, also have had their ties with the union.)

The single best government reform we could have in this country would be comprehensive public financing of campaigns, especially for Congress.

Will you support that?

M. Charles Bakst, The Journal's political columnist, can be reached by e -mail at mbakst@projo.com


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