By Lawrence Morahan
CNS Staff Writer
11 March, 1999
The U.S. Justice Department said it was "disappointed"
with a decision by an in-house investigation that acquitted a
top labor official who has been a leading Democratic campaign
contributor on charges that he had ties to the Mafia.
The investigation cleared Arthur
A. Coia, president of the 750,000-member, blue-collar Laborers'
International Union of North America, of associating with members
of organized crime, but fined the $250,000-a-year executive $100,000
for buying a $450,000 Ferrari with help from a union supplier.
The decision overturned the
recommendation of the union's internal prosecutor, who had urged
that Coia be removed. However, the ruling came as no surprise
to critics of the investigation process, who said that allowing
the union to investigate itself was a failure in the making. "There was no astonishment
on the part of the union's critics in this decision," said
Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a
conservative group, in an interview with CNS. "If anyone
had any doubts that letting the union investigate itself was a
bad idea, this decision should remove those doubts."
Coia oversaw $1.2 million in
contributions to Democrats in 1997 and 1998 and has flown on Air
Force One, Boehm said. First lady Hillary Clinton addressed a
Laborers conference in 1994 in Florida, against the recommendation
of the Justice Department, who informed her of pending criminal
investigation of the union, Boehm said.
The finding that Coia is not
a mob figure also conflicts with a Justice Department statement
in 1994 that said Coia has "associated with and been controlled
However, after a three-year
investigation, Peter F. Vaira, the union hearing officer, found
there was not enough evidence to prove charges that Coia associated
with New England mob boss Raymond Patriarca, or had other improper
ties to organized crime. Federal prosecutors also have alleged
that Coia's late father, who headed the laborers' in Rhode Island,
was a close associate of Patriarca's late father, a legendary
crime boss, reported Jim McGough, a spokesman for Laborers for
Justice, in an interview with CNS.
"Vaira is no Oliver Wendell
Holmes," McGough said.
Vaira, a former U.S. attorney
in Philadelphia, released a 108-page decision on Coia, based on
22 days of hearings last year documented in 5,500 pages of transcripts.
Vaira found that Coia took
part in a "direct conflict of interest" by jointly investing
in the Ferrari with the help of Viking Oldsmobile, which leased
cars to the union and was run by a longtime friend.
The Justice Department is still
investigating Coia and the Laborers and may yet file criminal
charges on the same matters addressed yesterday, McGough said.
The Justice Department also said it will encourage the union prosecutor
to appeal the decision.
Until Tuesday, the Justice
Department defended the model in house investigation. When the
probe was launched in 1996, the union was permitted to pursue
an internal reform program designed to remove the influence of
organized crime from its ranks. In return, the Justice Department
would refrain from filing a consent decree that would have court
appointed officers responsible for reforming the union, thus saving
the government expensive legal bills.
However, after the ruling was
announced, the Justice Department strongly criticized the decision.
"While we believe that
the case was thoroughly investigated by the union's Inspector
General and vigorously prosecuted by the General Executive Board
attorney, we believe the opinion contains serious factual and
legal errors," senior Justice Department officials said in
But conservatives don't see much hope for an impartial appeals process under the current circumstances. The union special appeals officer in such a case is Neil Eggleston, a former federal prosecutor who has represented the White House in its disputes with independent counsel Kenneth Starr over Clinton's assertions of privilege. "This would be a blatant conflict of interest," Boehm said. "The appeal should be overseen by an impartial federal judge, not a political ally."