The Providence Journal
The former Laborers' International union president loses his law license for two years, after politicians, businessmen and others lobby against disbarment.
When Arthur A. Coia faced disbarment as a Rhode Island lawyer earlier this year for defrauding taxpayers of nearly $100,000, U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy and other prominent public figures rallied behind the powerful labor leader.
Coia had resigned as president of the Laborers' International union and become a convicted felon for concealing his ownership of three expensive Ferrari sports cars.
In one instance, Coia paid $215,000 for a vintage Ferrari and used a fraudulent invoice stating the purchase price as $2,160, cheating Rhode Island of some $15,000 in taxes. Coia enlisted the aid of a Middletown car dealer who had the lucrative union contract providing cars to Laborers' executives.
When the Rhode Island Supreme Court began considering whether to disbar Coia last summer as a result of his felony conviction, Kennedy and others urged leniency.
"I have known Mr. Coia throughout my entire career in public service . . ." Kennedy wrote the court, on official congressional stationery. "In his dealings with people in the public realm, he conducts himself with an impressive level of integrity."
Another long-time friend, South Kingstown Police Chief Vincent Vespia, praised the former Laborers' International union president for his "honorable service" and "character and commitment."
Other testimonials came from North Providence Mayor A. Ralph Mollis, former Gov. Bruce G. Sundlun, former Rhode Island Atty. Gen. Julius C. Michaelson and former Providence Mayor Joseph A. Doorley Jr.
The letters, among nearly two dozen written by politicians, lawyers, businessmen and clerics, helped convince the Supreme Court not to disbar Coia, as the court's chief disciplinary counsel had sought.
Instead, the court voted to suspend Coia from practicing law for two years. In its decision, issued last week, the court also declined to issue the lesser penalty that Coia had requested, a public censure that would have meant no interruption of his license to practice law.
A review of Coia's court file illustrates the divided legacy of a man who has been both a friend to President Clinton and an accused consort of mobsters, a man who has been praised for cleaning up the Laborers and blamed for helping to perpetuate corruption in a historically Mafia-dominated union.
The letters focus on Coia's career as a national labor leader, including his struggle to survive after federal prosecutors accused him in 1994 of being a mob puppet and sought a government takeover of his 750,000-member union.
Coia's response was to negotiate an unprecedented arrangement in which the Justice Department agreed to let him oversee internal union reforms, hiring former prosecutors and FBI agents.
Coia's supporters say that his efforts were heroic and purged the union of 220 corrupt members. Critics say that Coia used his close ties to Mr. Clinton to remain in power. Republicans in Congress held hearings, but never turned up any evidence of White House favoritism.
Kennedy wrote to the Supreme Court that Coia has helped "improve the lives of countless working men and women." Downplaying Coia's "travails," Kennedy called him "a credit to the Rhode Island Bar" and urged the court to consider "the totality of Mr. Coia's contributions to society."
To others, Kennedy's support reveals a political friendship cemented by other kinds of contributions the millions of campaign dollars that Coia and his union have helped Kennedy and his Democratic Party raise in recent years.
"Campaign contributions can buy a lot of things," said Steven Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, a campaign-finance watchdog group. "It's not always a bill or an ambassadorship. It can be a letter in a time of need."
Since Kennedy took over as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee two years ago, the Laborers have donated $278,000 to the DCCC, according to a Kennedy aide. The union has donated more than $2 million to various national Democratic causes in the past two years.
Beyond the direct financial support, which Kennedy aides point out predates Kennedy's becoming head of the DCCC, Coia has also provided Kennedy with fundraising advice and contacts within national labor circles.
While Coia has been less involved this year, since his resignation and felony conviction, Kennedy chief of staff Anthony Marcella said yesterday that the congressman still seeks Coia's counsel on fundraising and other issues, and considers him a friend.
"He's helped with fundraising and he's offered political advice," Marcella said of Coia. "He knows the way Washington works."
THE RHODE ISLAND Supreme Court's chief disciplinary counsel, David D. Curtin, painted a different picture of Coia in his arguments seeking his disbarment.
Coia's lawyers played down his crime, arguing that many Rhode Islanders fraudulently register their cars elsewhere to avoid paying taxes and that Coia is the first to ever face criminal charges for doing so. Coia's crime was "relatively minor," they said, quoting the federal judge who sentenced Coia, and did not merit suspension of his law license.
Curtin criticized Coia for trying to "downplay the significance of his conduct" a "scam" "motivated by personal greed, and executed with guile."
"His conduct is a calculated plan, and not an anomalous act in an otherwise unblemished career," Curtin wrote in his brief to the court.
While Coia has sought to portray his resignation as Laborers' president as unconnected to his conviction, federal prosecutors said when he pleaded guilty in Boston in January that Coia's departure was part of the deal, because the car-tax fraud involved a union vendor, Viking Cadillac of Middletown.Viking was controlled by Coia's lifelong friend, Carmine Carcieri. Carcieri, who testified before the grand jury that investigated Coia, was not charged.
Coia was sentenced to two years' probation and fined $10,000 for mail fraud and agreed to pay $100,000 in restitution to the State of Rhode Island and the Town of Barrington, where he lives.
The deal allowed Coia to remain in a newly created union post, "general president emeritus," with an annual salary of $250,000.
On Sept. 21, Coia appeared before the Rhode Island Supreme Court for a private hearing regarding his law license.
The court, in its opinion last week, said that Coia deserved to be suspended for two years because of his conviction of "a serious crime involving dishonesty."
However, the court did not disbar Coia, citing his "unblemished legal career" prior to the crime, his charitable efforts in establishing scholarship funds at Providence College and the Southern New England School of Law, his union reforms and the many letters attesting to Coia's civic actions, "which portray a character vastly at odds with the isolated events that gave rise to his conviction."
Although Coia has not actively practiced law since 1989, when he became a full-time union executive, maintaining his license has been a source of pride for a man who, in court papers, said he was the first in his family to earn a law degree. Coia had hoped that the Providence law firm he helped found, Coia & Lepore, "would proudly bear Mr. Coia's name for generations."
As a result of Coia's suspension, Curtin says that he would like to see Coia's name removed from the firm, and that the partners there are discussing what to do. In any event, Coia, who said he serves in an "advisory role" to Coia & Lepore, is not entitled to receive any income from the firm during his suspension, Curtin said.
KENNEDY DECLINED to be interviewed about Coia.
Instead, he issued a statement describing Coia as "one of the first supporters of mine" at the DCCC.
"We had a common goal to achieve a Democratic majority in the House, and Arthur did everything he could to make that a reality," Kennedy said. "I believe in life that we must look at the good people do, as well as the troubles they might encounter. Arthur made a mistake, and I believe what he did was wrong. However, he has admitted it, paid a price for it, which he should, and will continue to pay a price for it."
Herman Benson, an official with the Association for Union Democracy in New York, a union-reform group, called it "sad" that Kennedy would "feel obliged to do this sort of thing" for Coia.
"The Democratic Party is interested in cultivating labor leaders, so this is sort of a quid pro quo," Benson said.
Brown University Prof. Darrell West, a national expert on political fundraising and a biographer of Kennedy, called it "rather shocking" that Kennedy would "embrace Coia as closely as he has."
"Arthur Coia has been the target of various investigations; he has controversy written all over him," West said. "There's at least the appearance that Kennedy and the Democrats have leaned heavily on Coia for fundraising. This guy has delivered big-time for Kennedy, so he's in the tent."
Countered Kennedy, in his statement: "I was happy, and did not hesitate, to write a letter of support for Arthur Coia . . . It's easy to walk away from someone when there may be a problem. I don't believe in that . . . his good qualities far outweigh the troubles he may have encountered."
KENEDY'S LETTER OF SUPPORT
Dear Chief Justice Weisberger and Justices Lederberg, Bourcier, Flanders and Goldberg:
I would like to take this opportunity to proffer my sincere testimony to the integrity of Mr. Arthur C. Coia in his request to remain a member of the Rhode Island State Bar. I appreciate this opportunity to offer this information to the court. I have known Mr. Coia throughout my entire career in public service, beginning as a Rhode Island state legislator in 1988. In his dealings with people in the public realm, he conducts himself with an impressive level of integrity and competence, including all of his dealings with me.
Mr. Coia has distinguished himself on a number of fronts, and has committed most of his life to working to improve the lives of countless working men and women. He has stood up against corruption in the affairs of the Laborers Union, putting his legal skills to use to restore the power of labor to its rightful place in society. I have worked personally with Mr. Coia, and I have found him to be one of the most effective and adept people that the labor movement has ever had. During his tenure with the union movement, he would shirk no responsibility nor avoid any struggle if it means empowering the men and women of our nations unions. This nation has rarely seen an advocate as willful and dedicated to improving labor as Mr. Coia has proven himself to have been.
The totality of Mr. Coia’s contributions to society must be considered in these proceedings. It has earned him many friends, but also the enmity of those who wish to see his political and ideological agenda discredited and dismantled. It is my belief that many of his travails can be traced to the rivals and opponents who have, for one reason or another, disagreed with Mr. Coia in the past. However, on the balance, Mr. Coia has long demonstrated that he has the true interests of the working people in mind. I sincerely believe that Mr. Coia has been a credit to the Rhode Island Bar. I also firmly believe that he will continue to distinguish himself through his law practice here in the state. It is my wish that you consider the confidence that so many Rhode Islanders have in Mr. Coia during your deliberations.
Again, thank you for your time and attention to this matter. It is my wish that I be able to continue to work with Mr. Coia as a member in good standing of the Rhode Island Bar.
Patrick J. Kennedy
Member of Congress