By John Mintz
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 10, 1999
A top labor union official who has been a
leading Democratic campaign contributor was fined $100,000 yesterday
for engaging in an improper business investment with a union vendor
but was cleared of the more serious charges that he is under Mafia
control and will be allowed to keep his job.
The ruling, by a union hearing officer, came
in the case of Arthur A. Coia, general president of the
Laborers International Union of North America. It overturned the recommendation of the union's
internal prosecutor, who had urged that Coia be removed,
and angered some of President Clinton's conservative and Republican
critics, who see it as further proof that the administration has
given favorable treatment to a close White House ally. The charges against Coia are a test case
of an innovative agreement that the Justice Department reached
with the Laborers and Coia in 1995. Rather than take over the
mob tainted union, as the government had done in the case of the
Teamsters union, Justice officials allowed the Laborers to try
to root out corruption themselves.
A team of former federal prosecutors and
FBI agents retained by the Laborers has ousted about 200 members
and officials from their union jobs and has taken control of 20
mob-affiliated locals or district councils in the 750,000-member
blue-collar workers union. Yesterday, in perhaps the union's most significant
internal action, hearing officer Peter 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, who is paid $254,000
annually, took part in a "direct conflict of interest"
by jointly owning an expensive Ferrari with a car-leasing firm
that did business with the union. But he dismissed as unproven
the accusation that Coia was an associate of the New England mob.
The finding that Coia is not a mob figure
undermines a key accusation that Republicans have mounted frequently
against one of Clinton's most avid labor supporters. It also conflicts
with the stance of Clinton's own Justice Department, which said
in 1994 that Coia has "associated with and been controlled
"The public shouldn't have any confidence
in the integrity of this process," said Ken Boehm, chairman
of the National Legal and Policy Center, a conservative group.
"This is not the way to clean up a union." Boehm said the Clinton administration has
shown undue deference to Coia, who oversaw $1.2 million in contributions
to Democrats in 1997 and 1998 and has flown on Air Force One.
He noted that first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton addressed a 1994
Laborers conference in Florida despite Justice Department recommendations
that she not do so because of pending criminal investigations
of the union.
Critics such as Boehm point out that Robert
Luskin, the former federal prosecutor who filed the internal union
charges against Coia, previously had been a lawyer for the union
itself. "We didn't pull any punches," Luskin
said. "I'm satisfied we did an able job. . . . We left no
Union officials cite the sterling reputation
of the former federal investigators who had been recommended by
the Justice Department and who handled the case. The chief investigator
was former associate FBI director Douglas Gow. Vaira found after examining Luskin's case
that not only was Coia not a New England mob associate, he was
disliked by the Mafia boss there.
An FBI document introduced into evidence
and released publicly for the first time yesterday shows that
Raymond Patriarca Jr., the head of the New England Mafia, told
agents in 1996 that while Coia's union official father was a mob
associate, Arthur Coia "has forgotten where he came from"
and "doesn't have the [nerve] to be a gangster." Patriarca
went into detail about his resentment of Coia as an arrogant multimillionaire
who lives in a wealthy suburb.
Vaira also rejected much of the testimony
of two mob witnesses for the prosecution. One, a driver for mob
figures, testified that Coia met scores of times in 1985 with
mobsters, but Rhode Island State Police officials who had Coia
under constant surveillance at the time said such meetings didn't
take place. "The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated
that Arthur Coia isn't connected to the mob and that the mob hated
him," said his attorney, Howard Gutman. "I intend to continue the work of making
[the Laborers] the best, cleanest, most democratic union anywhere,"
The Justice Department still is investigating
Coia and the Laborers and may yet file criminal charges
on the same matters addressed yesterday, officials said. "We're disappointed with the decision,"
said Scott Lassar, the U.S. attorney in Chicago, who is leading
the Laborers probe. "While we believe the case was thoroughly
investigated" and prosecuted, he added, "we believe
the opinion contains serious factual and legal errors." He
said he will urge Luskin to appeal it.
But the union's 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 W. Starr over Clinton's assertions of privilege.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company