by Byron York
On November 4, 1994, Bill Clinton sat down to write a note to his good friend Arthur A. Coia, head of the Laborers International Union of North America. "I just heard you've become a grandfather," the president scrawled on White House stationery. "Congratulations!" Then Clinton added: "Thanks for the gorgeous driver -- it's a work of art. Best, Bill." Coia had given the president a golf club a few days before -- a persimmon driver custom-made by Coia's favorite club-maker and engraved with Clinton's signature and the presidential seal. Just a week before that, the president had given Coia a golf gift of his own -- a Callaway "Divine Nine" wood which Coia treasured so much that he placed it in a glass display case in the union's offices a few blocks from the White House.Each man certainly had reason to be grateful to the other. According to Federal Election Commission records, Coia's political action committee, the Laborers Political League, gave $1,415,867 to the Democratic Party or to Democratic candidates in the 1993-1994 election cycle (and that figure does not include millions more given by the union's state PACs controlled by Coia). Beyond that, Coia had written the president and White House staffers dozens of supportive letters and even contributed at least $50,000 in union funds to one of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's favorite charities. In turn, the president repaid Coia's generosity -- and not just with the Divine Nine, invitations to the White House, and access to the Oval Office. In a move that received little press coverage, the Clinton administration also dramatically increased the amount of federal grant money going to the Laborers. It was a profitable relationship.
But on this day, November 4, a troubling thing happened -- a development that might conceivably threaten the political friendship. That morning the Justice Department sent Coia a draft of proposed racketeering charges -- commonly known as a RICO complaint -- against the Laborers union. The complaint said that Arthur Coia had "associated with, and been controlled and influenced by, organized crime figures." According to the government, Coia's co-racketeers included Carmine "The Snake" Persico, boss of the Colombo crime family in New York, Joseph "Joey Doves" Aiuppa, head of the Chicago mob, and Joseph Todaro, chief of the Buffalo crime syndicate.
The RICO complaint specifically accused Coia of participating in a kickback scheme to loot union health and welfare benefit funds and split the money with the late New England Mafia boss Raymond Patriarca. It also accused Coia of stealing from union locals in upstate New York to share the cash with Todaro. And the complaint said any union members who objected to Coia's schemes had been "intimidated into silence by violence, threats of violence, economic coercion, and by the known ties of corrupt...officials of the union with organized crime." The Justice Department threatened to file the RICO charges unless the union fired Coia, removed several other allegedly corrupt officials, and instituted wide-ranging reforms.
The RICO complaint was not entirely unexpected; it had been known for years that the Justice Department was going after the Laborers, thought to be one of the most crooked unions in America. Still, the action set off alarm bells at union headquarters. Coia called an emergency meeting of the Laborers board of directors, and union officials around the country dropped what they were doing and flew to Washington.
"Arthur goes into damage-control mode," says one person who was at the meeting. "He says, 'Look, we're gonna fight this, right guys?'" But at the same time that he pledged to resist the complaint, Coia also presented a bold plan of action. He proposed making a deal with the government -- a deal that would be on the Laborers terms, not the Justice Department's. He brought in Robert Luskin, a Washington criminal attorney who served a brief stint in the Department's Organized Crime Division. Coia told the board he would hire Luskin to negotiate with the government -- an announcement that brought skeptical looks from some of the more traditionalist Laborers. "Luskin's...wearing an earring," says the meeting participant, "and these old-timers are not digging the earring." But Luskin's résumé and connections were impressive, and Coia prevailed. Luskin -- working alongside Coia's personal lawyer, the aggressive Washington attorney Brendan Sullivan -- began talks with the government.
At first the situation did not look good for Coia. The Justice Department has prevailed in RICO cases against two other corrupt unions, the Teamsters and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Workers. But this time, things turned out quite differently. After three months of back-and-forth talks, in February 1995 the Justice Department backed down. The government dropped the RICO action -- and then dropped the demand that Coia leave office. Then, in a move that baffled veteran prosecutors and even some officials inside the union, the Department enlisted Coia -- a man one top prosecutor referred to as "a mob puppet" -- in the task of ridding the union of Mafia influence. Arthur Coia had won a stunning victory.
It had taken the government three years to compile the case -- and three months to drop it. The speed of the settlement led many observers to conclude that there must have been a deal between Coia and his good friend and political beneficiary Bill Clinton. What else could explain such lenient treatment for a man the government had branded a corrupt union boss? But top officials in both the Justice Department and the White House denied any special treatment. And congressional hearings held by Republicans last summer failed to produce any evidence that Clinton had fixed the Coia case. Investigators were forced to theorize that Justice Department officials, while not actually pressured by the White House, nevertheless felt constrained in their dealings with Coia because they knew he was a major supporter of the president. The congressional probe came to a close.
Now, however, there is new evidence about Coia, Clinton, and the Laborers case. The evidence concerns the board meeting Coia called shortly after receiving the RICO complaint. Even though Coia discussed the issue with the entire board, several former officials say it was usually his practice to talk things over with confidants before the board gathered. "He met with the executive board in little groups or one-on-ones," says a former officer. On that day, TAS has learned, Coia convened a small pre-meeting meeting in his seventh-floor office. The gathering included Samuel Caivano, the New York/New Jersey vice-president who was also named in the RICO complaint as an alleged mob associate. Caivano's son David, who administered the union's New York state political action committee, was there. And John Serpico, a long-time Coia rival who headed the powerful Chicago local and would later be named by the Justice Department as an alleged mob associate, was also there.
As they stood surrounded by framed photographs of Coia and Bill Clinton, the men discussed the RICO action. Serpico, Samuel Caivano, and David Caivano -- who have never publicly discussed what went on at the meeting -- tell TAS that Arthur Coia made it clear to them that the White House would take care of the RICO problem. "He said he talked to Clinton and Clinton assured him that everything would be OK," Serpico recalls. "Clinton was gonna help him out and take care of this thing." In a separate interview, David Caivano remembers the conversation in more detail. Coia, he says, turned to Samuel Caivano and said, "Sam, I talked to Bill Clinton about this. He knows we're not doing anything wrong. Don't worry." "That," says David Caivano, "is what Arthur Coia told us." For his part, Samuel Caivano confirms his son's account of the meeting.
The accounts of Serpico and the Caivanos -- all of whom lost their jobs as part of Coia's "clean-up" of the union -- raise new and serious questions about whether the president exercised his influence on behalf of Coia. In addition, TAS has uncovered new details about the intimate ties between Coia's union and then-White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. Taken as a whole, the information sheds new light on Bill Clinton's willingness to cozy up to and do favors for those who contributed large sums of money to the Democratic Party -- regardless of the legal or ethical issues involved. Recent revelations in the campaign finance investigation have shown that the president did not seem troubled when contributions came from foreigners barred by law from contributing to American political races. He did not seem troubled when the money came from a Communist nation hostile to the United States. And, in the case of Coia and the Laborers, he did not seem troubled when it came from a mob-controlled union. The story of Arthur Coia's deal with the government is yet another chapter -- and one of the most damaging -- in the unfolding campaign finance scandal that is engulfing the Clinton White House.
Life With the Wiseguys
Arthur Coia grew up in the Laborers union, which today counts nearly 750,000 unskilled workers among its ranks. His grandfather Pasquale Coia was a founding member of a Laborers local in Providence, Rhode Island. His father Arthur E. Coia was a longtime local official who ultimately rose to the second-highest position in the national union. Arthur E. Coia was also, according to law enforcement investigators, a close friend of Raymond Patriarca, who for decades was the top mobster in New England. Patriarca controlled almost every part of life in the union. Several years ago, when the Providence Journal-Bulletin obtained FBI wiretaps of Patriarca at work, he was heard dispensing advice on ways to deal with balky members. "Hit them," the Mafioso said. "Break legs to get things your way."
Young Arthur A. Coia joined the union in 1957, at the age of 14. But along the way he acquired a bit more polish than earlier generations. After attending Providence College, he earned a law degree at Boston University and set up a practice in Providence. The business did well, in no small part due to the lucrative work given it by the Laborers union, as well as with the city of Providence and other businesses tied to the union. Coia also took a job in the union hierarchy.
The Coias faced a crisis in 1981. In September of that year, both father and son, along with Raymond Patriarca, were indicted on racketeering and bribery charges. According to the indictment, Arthur A. Coia and his father, along with others in the union, set up an insurance scheme through which they charged Laborers union members for "the most expensive form of insurance and [looted] the insurance premiums by using them for kickbacks, payoffs, unearned salaries and fees and improper personal expenses."
The indictments were part of a widespread crackdown on the Laborers. Also charged were union president Angelo Fosco, Florida mob chief Santo Trafficante, and Chicago mobster Anthony "Big Tuna" Accardo. The Coias were not accused of being actual members of the mob; they were characterized as close associates of organized crime figures. In the case of Accardo, the elder Coia admitted to a lifelong friendship. "Of course I know him," Coia told the Providence Journal-Bulletin. "I know him for 45 years. A decent man." Arthur A. Coia was a bit more defensive. "I think I met him in a restaurant once," he told the paper. But Coia said he had never come across anybody named Big Tuna. Didn't even know what the name meant. "Is he a big guy?" Coia asked reporters. "Is he heavy?"
The case against the Coias took a surprising turn when a judge threw out the charges against them. It turns out the government had let the statute of limitations expire before filing charges. Even though the trials of some other defendants continued, there was never any determination of the Coias' guilt or innocence.
More trouble came in 1986, when the President's Commission on Organized Crime identified the Laborers union as one of the "bad four," the four most corrupt unions in America (the others were the Teamsters, the Longshoremen, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Workers). Each of those unions' presidents, a top FBI official told Congress, was "hand-picked by La Cosa Nostra." In the case of the Laborers, the commission pointed out that Angelo Fosco won re-election as president of the union even while he was under indictment for racketeering. Fosco's victory, the commission wrote, "is also attributable to the use of force and threats of violence against potential competitors. Fosco personally threatened long-time international vice-president Robert Powell with death, confronting Powell in public at a [union] dinner."
Despite such deterrents, federal prosecutors say that in the 1980's, Arthur E. Coia considered a challenge to Fosco's leadership. According to those prosecutors, shortly before the union's 1986 convention Buffalo mob boss Joseph Todaro met with the elder Coia and "advised [him] that he should abandon his effort to challenge Fosco because the Chicago La Cosa Nostra family would not yield its control of the position of General Presidency of the union." Arthur E. Coia backed off. He settled for the number two position, secretary-treasurer of the Laborers.
Years later his son, Arthur A. Coia, would hold the same job. And, like his father, the younger Coia decided to make his own run for the top position. And he too got a warning from Chicago to stay away. Coia described that warning in some detail in testimony given in a union disciplinary proceeding. On a trip to Chicago, Coia said, he was introduced to mob capo Vincent Solano. According to Coia, Solano told him that the job of president of the union was reserved for Chicago's John Serpico. Coia should back off.
But this time, a Coia outwitted the Chicagoans. When Angelo Fosco became ill in the early 1990's, Arthur A. Coia skillfully gathered support among the other members of the board and positioned himself to get the top job that seemed guaranteed to Serpico. When Fosco died in early 1993, Coia engineered an immediate meeting of the board and easily won the voting for president. Where his father had failed, Arthur A. Coia made it.
Arthur & Bill, Part One
Coia moved into the Laborers president's office on 16th Street in downtown Washington in March 1993 -- six weeks after Bill Clinton moved into the Oval Office just two blocks away. Even before he took office, Coia started helping Clinton in any way he could. According to White House records, the Laborers loaned $100,000 to the Clinton inaugural committee. Then, according to Federal Election Commission records, the union donated $25,000 to the Democratic National Committee on May 20, 1993.
In June, Coia received his first invitation to visit the White House. He and his wife attended dinner there on the 17th and watched an NBA playoff game with the president afterwards. The next day, Coia's wife Joanne sent a handwritten thank-you note and a small gift. "Dear Hillary," the letter began. "To say thank you seems trite for the genuine, warm hospitality you and President Clinton extended to my husband, Arthur, and myself at dinner on June 17. Please accept my small 'Book of Psalms' as a manner of wishing you peace and good health." On June 21, the Laborers sent another $25,000 to the DNC.
More letters followed. On September 1, Coia attended a Labor Day reception with the president. A few days later Clinton invited Coia to attend the White House signing of the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement (Coia couldn't make it). On October 14, Coia attended a DNC fundraiser with the president.
On October 28, Coia sent a letter to the White House inviting the first lady to address a Laborers convention to be held in Miami in February 1994. As Mrs. Clinton's office considered the invitation, her staff contacted the Department of Labor to inform them of the offer. In turn, officials at Labor contacted the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of the Justice Department. Alarm bells went off. On January 11, 1994, Paul Coffey, head of that department, wrote a memo to his boss. The White House should know, Coffey wrote, that the Justice Department was preparing a RICO complaint against Coia and other union leaders. "It might be prudent," Coffey wrote in an internal Justice Department memo, "to recommend that she avoid any direct contact with Coia, if possible, inasmuch as we plan to portray him as a mob puppet." The first lady declined the invitation.
While the Justice Department recommendation was winding its way through the system, the White House continued to stay close to Coia. On December 1, Coia attended a reception for DNC "managing trustees" with the president and Mrs. Clinton. On December 8, Coia went to the White House for a holiday reception and dinner.
Even after Coffey's memo, the White House and Coia continued to court each other; the White House sent at least fifteen letters to Coia in the six months following the Coffey warning. On March 9, 1994, Coia was invited to a presidential announcement ceremony. On March 23, he sent $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee. On April 19, he was invited to dinner at the White House. On May 4, he was invited to attend the signing of the School-to-Work bill. On May 11, he was invited to the "First Ladies' Gala." On May 12, he was invited to a private reception with the president. On June 13, he was invited to the White House to greet Emperor Akihito of Japan. On June 20, Coia sent $35,000 to the DNC. On the 24th, he sent $10,000. On June 28, he was invited to a breakfast at the White House.
Also in June, Coia served as a co-chair -- along with Robert Strauss, Dwayne Andreas, and Ronald Perelman -- of a DNC fundraiser that raised $3.5 million. On July 13, the Laborers union sent another $100,000 to the DNC. And not all of Coia's contributions went to the party. At times, Coia used union funds in an apparent attempt to curry favor with the first lady. In May 1994, Coia donated $50,000 to the U.S. Botanical Gardens, which he believed to be a favorite of Mrs. Clinton's. (The move baffled some Laborers. David Caivano describes learning about the donation from another union man. "He says Arthur donated money to the botanical society," Caivano recalls. "And I say 'Flowers?' He says, 'Yeah,' and I say, 'Why?' and he says, 'Because Hillary Clinton is involved and he desperately wants to get next to Hillary Clinton.'") Also during that period, Coia joined the board of advisers of the "Back to Business" committee established by a group of Democratic lobbyists to defend the president against allegations of wrongdoing in the Whitewater and Travelgate scandals. A few months later, Coia contributed $1,000 -- the maximum allowed -- to Clinton's legal defense fund.
Money wasn't the only thing Coia was giving Bill Clinton. Coia was also willing to break with others in organized labor -- including many in his own union -- to support Clinton on two key issues. He was the only major union leader to support NAFTA, and he also gave unusually strong support to Mrs. Clinton's health care proposal. "He used to tell us that Clinton was indebted to us because of our union's stand," John Serpico recalls. "He would say, 'I have a few chips with Clinton.'"
Arthur & Bill, Part Two
By the fall of 1994, the White House was planning another reward for Coia's generosity: Clinton planned to name him to the President's Council on Competitiveness. In September, as part of a routine background check for the position, the White House counsel's office sent a memo to the FBI requesting information on Coia. Like the inquiry in January, the request ended up on the desk of Paul Coffey. A short time later, Coffey's concerns about the union appeared in a memo from the head of the Department's Criminal Division to Attorney General Janet Reno and top deputy Jamie Gorelick. "The Criminal Division has long had information, including public testimony and information from cooperating witnesses," the memo said, "that Coia was associated with and controlled by the New England family of La Cosa Nostra." The memo added that in the next few weeks the Justice Department would deliver the RICO complaint, and it would "accuse Coia and his two immediate predecessors...of being puppets of La Cosa Nostra." The next day, the FBI sent a memo to the White House Counsel's office with an abbreviated version of Coffey's information. Coia did not get the position on the Council on Competitiveness.
But that didn't stop Clinton from courting Coia. On September 30, Coia attended a DNC Labor Council Breakfast. On October 11, Coia sent a handmade golf shirt to Clinton. On the 20th, Clinton met Coia at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser and presented him with the Divine Nine. The two traded letters the next day. Coia wrote to thank the president for the gift. "I plan to display this club prominently," Coia said. "It will join displays of the Laborers proud history." Clinton wrote to thank Coia for the golf shirt. He was "sorry that we did not have the chance to play golf together this season," the president wrote. "You might have helped me break 80."
On October 23, Coia and his wife attended a dinner at the White House. "Thank you for a wonderful evening of dinner and entertainment at the White House," they wrote the Clintons the next day. "We must especially offer our compliments on your choice of music for the event, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing a talented saxophone player entertain the crowd." On November 2, Coia accompanied Clinton on a visit to Rhode Island, where Coia gave the president that handmade driver engraved with the presidential seal. On November 4, Clinton sent his handwritten thank-you note. And, of course, on November 4, the RICO complaint was delivered to Laborers union headquarters.
Certainly one would think that that would give the White House pause in dealing with Arthur Coia. It did not. On November 8, Coia attended an election day reception at the White House. On November 10, he attended a health care reception at the White House. That same day, he sent deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes a long analysis of the Democrats' loss of Congress. "Dear Harold," Coia wrote, "Our situation requires blunt and realistic appraisals. I share mine with you, and I hope you will convey them to the president. We will remain supportive of the president, and I do not intend to air criticisms in public." Coia then suggested that Clinton act more presidential in face of Republican successes. (Ickes's role in the Coia case raises even more questions about the White House/Coia connection. See sidebar ('Our Guy' in the White House )
As December began, negotiations between the Justice Department and the Laborers gathered momentum; the two sides held bargaining meetings that sometimes lasted more than 12 hours. As the talks progressed, Coia kept in touch with the president. On December 16, Coia wrote two letters to Clinton; on December 20, he wrote two more. The RICO negotiations went on, stretching through December and then through January 1995. In February, the union held its annual conference in Miami. Coia had again invited the first lady to speak, and this time -- even though Coia had been named as an alleged mob associate and the negotiations were underway -- she accepted.
As it had done the year before, the Justice Department raised red flags about Coia. Congressional investigators found that Jamie Gorelick discussed the issue with then-White House counsel Abner Mikva. Gorelick told Mikva that Justice had serious concerns about Coia. The word got to the first lady -- from Mikva through Harold Ickes -- along with the suggestion that Mrs. Clinton not have any private meetings with Coia. On February 6 -- at a time when RICO negotiations were reaching a critical stage -- Mrs. Clinton traveled to the opulent ballroom of the Fountainbleu Hotel in Miami Beach to address the Laborers. She made no reference to Coia's legal troubles. On February 13, the union and the Justice Department made the deal that kept Coia in his job.
Arthur & Bill, Part Three
At the end of March 1995, the White House called Coia with a last-minute offer: the president was going to Haiti, and would Coia like to catch up with him in Florida and go along on the visit? At the time, the Laborers had proposed setting up a job training program in Haiti -- a program for which they would be paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants. Coia -- who was unable to get to Florida in time to rendezvous with the president -- wrote Harold Ickes on April 3 to thank him for his "quick and personal involvement in my invitation to join President Clinton in Haiti." And by the way, Coia said, that training proposal was working its way through the bureaucracy at the Agency for International Development, and he hoped to discuss it with the White House very soon.
In May, Coia attended a Labor Council reception with Clinton. It appears he did not go to the White House again until September, when he attended a DNC Business Leadership event. In October, Coia talked with DNC co-chairman Don Fowler. Coia had a request to make: he wanted to give a speech at the 1996 Democratic Convention in Chicago. In November, Fowler sent a hand-written note to Ickes. "Arthur Coia...would like a speaking role at the '96 convention," Fowler wrote. "He has been a very good supporter of the Pres. and the Demo Party." (In the end, Coia did not speak to the convention.) In December, Coia went to the White House for a holiday reception. After that, it appears his next invitation was to a state dinner for the president of Italy in April 1996.
Coia made a big splash in May 1996, when he was co-chairman of a giant Democratic National Committee fundraiser at the Washington Convention Center. Stevie Wonder and Robin Williams entertained (Coia got to sit at their table), and the president, first lady, vice president, and Tipper Gore all spoke to the gathering. The event raised a record $12 million. Watching back home, David Caivano was amazed. "You're gonna tell me that in 1996 they didn't know Arthur was hot?" he says. "And they allowed him to co-chair a DNC fundraiser that raised $12 million?"
All the while, Coia's contributions to the Democrats were growing steadily. According to Federal Election Commission records, in June 1995 the Laborers Political League gave $35,000 to the DNC. In August it sent $10,000. In October it sent $50,000. In December it sent $100,000. In January 1996 it contributed $15,000, and another $15,000 in April. In May it sent $200,000. When other contributions to the party are added in, the League gave a total of $2,260,700 during the 1995-1996 election cycle -- which was on top of the $1,415,867 the Laborers gave during the 1993-1994 election term. That makes a total of $3,676,567 during Bill Clinton's time in the White House. And much more was given by the union's individual state PACs around the country.
Coia and the Laborers were handsomely repaid for their efforts. In addition to the access and status Coia received after his contributions, the union received lucrative grants from the federal government. A study by Kenneth Weinstein of the Heritage Foundation found that in fiscal year 1994, the union pocketed $11,376,000 in grants from the Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services, among others. And, according to figures compiled by Heritage researchers, the Laborers received even greater rewards as their contributions grew; the union took in a total of $18,332,451 in federal grants in fiscal year 1995.
For example, the Laborers training center in Connecticut received $2,284,901 from HHS to train Superfund clean-up workers in 1994. The next year, the center was given $9,344,500 for the project. And some grants were for work that appears unrelated to the Laborers' purpose: the union accepted a $748,536 grant from HUD to help poor families find housing in Columbus, Ohio, and received $446,945 to do the same thing in Jacksonville, Illinois. All told, the Laborers received nearly $30 million in two years -- for just $3.6 million in political contributions. For that reason alone, Arthur Coia's courting of Bill Clinton would have been well worth the effort, even if he had never received a single White House invitation.
Denials All 'Round
Last July, the crime subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on the government's handling of the Laborers. The hearing included testimony from the four top Justice Department officials responsible for the deal to drop the RICO complaint: Paul Coffey of the Organized Crime and Racketeering Section, John Keeney of the Criminal Division, James Burns, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois, where the case was brought, and Jo Ann Harris, who headed the Criminal Division during the negotiations with the union. Subcommittee chairman Bill McCollum put the critical question to each of them:
McCollum: To the best of your knowledge, belief, and understanding, do you know of any direct or indirect influence or pressure by the White House with regard to the settlement ultimately accepted by the Department of Justice with regard to the [Laborers] case?
Harris: I know of absolutely no influence or attempted influence by the White House in connection with this settlement.
McCollum: Mr. Keeney?
Keeney: I agree with Ms. Harris' statements totally.
McCollum: Mr. Burns?
Burns: I agree, I do not.
McCollum: Mr. Coffey?
Coffey: Didn't happen.
In addition to the testimony denying a White House connection, the subcommittee did not uncover any documents that supported the idea of presidential influence in the settlement. Still, the subcommittee's report concluded that "while the facts gathered to date do not reveal a direct connection, serious concerns exist about the propriety of the White House's extensive dealings with someone who was simultaneously battling federal prosecutors." Despite that warning, the bottom line was that the Republicans were looking for a fix and couldn't find one.
But the subcommittee's investigation was far from definitive. Indeed, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that in their election-year haste to score political points at the expense of the Clinton administration, Republicans failed to fully explore the serious issues in the case. Arthur Coia did not testify. No questions were asked of the president or first lady; in fact, no one from the White House testified. No other union official testified. Robert Luskin, the man hired by the Laborers to make the deal with the Justice Department, did not testify. Nor did John Serpico, Samuel Caivano, or David Caivano. Given such enormous gaps in the record, it was impossible for the subcommittee to reach any reliable verdict on what went on in the Laborers affair.
And many of the principals remain averse to answering inquiries about the case. In late February, TAS submitted the following written questions to Arthur Coia:
- Did Mr. Coia ever discuss the RICO case with President Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton or Harold Ickes? If the answer is yes, what was the nature of the conversation? What specifically was discussed?
- Did Mr. Coia ever tell associates within the union or outside the union that he had discussed the case with President Clinton?
- Did Mr. Coia ever tell associates within the union or outside the union that he had discussed the case with Mrs. Clinton or with Harold Ickes?
- Did Mr. Coia arrange for the union or any of its related organizations such as political action committees to hire Harold Ickes in 1993 or 1994? If the answer is yes, was Mr. Ickes hired to gain influence within the Clinton administration?
This is Coia's written response, in its entirety:
The Laborers' Oversight Agreement with the Department of Justice is now over two years old. It is responsible for more than 300 open investigations at this time with over 50 charges filed, and has led to more than 150 individuals leaving the union. It is constantly under review by numerous career Justice Department officials, and utilizes more than 50 former FBI agents to conduct investigations. It has been scrutinized by the House Judiciary's Subcommittee on Crime, Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and ABC News.
In light of the intense professional review this Agreement has already received, we see no reason to participate in the premature autopsy of the Laborers' laid out to us in your letter of [February 20, 1997]. In addition, after all of the above mentioned factors, we doubt that answering for the eight millionth time only four astoundingly skewed questions which you posed in your letter will advance an enlightened discourse about how to strike a healthy balance between the Justice Department and labor unions.
It is most unfortunate that you find the need to assail a union of laboring Americans in your ongoing vendetta against the current White House Administration.
The White House also declined to answer written questions from TAS. In refusing, an administration official said, "This issue was thoroughly investigated by Congress. We consider the matter closed." However, the White House made a more substantive statement two years ago, when the Providence Journal-Bulletin inquired about Hillary Rodham Clinton's decision to address the Laborers convention in Miami. In response to the paper's questions, the White House conceded that the first lady had been warned about Coia before she went to Florida in February 1995. But the White House stood firm on the question of what the president knew and when he knew it:
The President was not advised of the Justice Department's investigation of Mr. Coia as there was no occasion for which he had a need to know this information. Neither the President nor the First Lady was informed about the Department's negotiations in the investigation, including any decisions regarding Mr. Coia's status as president of the Union.
The Department informed the White House Counsel's office that Mr. Coia was under investigation. Neither the President nor the First Lady discussed this matter with the Justice Department.
The President and First Lady did not discuss this matter with Mr. Coia at any time.
It appears the White House position is that Bill Clinton did not know about Coia's alleged mob associations until at least early 1995 and perhaps far beyond that date. But the Justice Department sent the "mob puppet" warning in January 1994. And another warning later that year. And John Serpico, Samuel Caivano, and David Caivano all say Arthur Coia told them he had discussed the RICO issue with the president in the first week of November 1994. Beyond that, a simple search of almost any newspaper database will reveal articles going back years detailing the alleged mob ties of Coia and his predecessors. Did Bill Clinton really not know? Or were Coia's contributions to the Democrats simply too valuable to let a Justice Department investigation come between the president and the generous union boss?
Whatever the case, Arthur Coia is now in a position to keep contributing for the duration of the Clinton administration. Late last year, in a union election that was supervised by the Justice Department and which for the first time allowed members to vote directly for president, Coia was easily re-elected over a little-known opponent. Many observers thought it a disheartening sign that just 15 percent of the union members eligible to vote cast their ballots, but in some ways Coia appears to have more power today than before. John Serpico and Samuel Caivano, who at one time were two of the most powerful officials of the union, are out -- ousted by Coia as part of the deal with the Justice Department. One interesting result of Coia's pact with the government is that he was able to use the cover of cleaning up the union to get rid of his most potent rivals. The formerly all-powerful Chicago Laborers have fallen, and Coia remains standing.
The Spreading Scandal
In mid-February, the New York Post's Jack Newfield wrote a column in which he quoted a "conscience-stricken Clinton adviser." The source described a meeting in May 1995 in which the president was "incredibly intense" about the need to raise millions of dollars for his re-election campaign. "That's what caused people to start cutting corners," the adviser said. "Where do you go for so much soft money? We went to the Asian clients of Clinton's Arkansas friends. We went to dirty unions like the Laborers International..."
The strategy worked; money from the Laborers no doubt played a role in winning Clinton a second term. But to get the cash, Clinton had to ignore warnings about the propriety of the contributions. We now know, for example, that in the case of illegal Asian donors, some members of the National Security Council tried to warn top White House staffers to stay away from the shady characters. Their advice was ignored. In the case of the Laborers, the Justice Department played a similar role: it twice warned the White House that Coia and the Laborers were trouble. But again the White House ignored the advice.
Now the story is coming to light. Perhaps as investigators in Congress push for more information about the source of questionable donations -- and how the Clinton administration might have changed its policies as a reward for the money -- they'll add the case of Arthur Coia and the Laborers union to the list of suspicious transactions.
Byron York is an investigative writer for TAS.