By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 3, 1999
The old man's gut is distended, purple veins
threaded with tubes. The chest heaves, his voice is a rasp.
Angelo Fosco is dying.
A nurse puts a compress to his liver-freckled
forehead as the private jet torques over Miami. All turquoise
and pastel below. But Angelo don't care, he's got to get to the
Bal Harbour Sheraton.
A last errand.
Fosco is president of the Laborers' International
Union and he had hoped to pass the day on his deathbed. But his
executive board is meeting at the Sheraton. And the Chicago Outfit,
which is to say the Mafia, which is to say Fosco's real boss,
roused him and strongly suggested he get their choice, John Serpico,
elected as his successor.
So Fosco's gurney wheels into the hotel lobby,
the union delegates shake their heads--can you freakin'
believe this guy!--and it's right out of the movies until
. . . Fosco croaks.
Right before the vote.
Then the union's smooth and dapper secretary-treasurer,
Arthur Armand Coia, lines up the votes, sidesteps the mooks who
might deprive him of consciousness, and beats out Serpico to become
general president of one of the nation's largest unions. That
was February 1993. In the years to come, Coia cuts a deal with
federal prosecutors, cleans his union's stables, boots out a bunch
of mobsters, plays kingmaker within the AFL-CIO and buddies up
to President Clinton.
He gives Clinton a customized golf club;
the president pens a personal note on the birth of his grandchild.
His union contributes millions to the Democratic Party;
the first lady flies to a Laborers conference . . .
La Cosa Nostra is not amused.
Nor is the United States Department of
A lot of Mafiosi are convinced that Coia
is a double-dealing usurper intent on depriving them of their
ancestral right to loot the union, an ungrateful wretch of a
social climber who's turned on the goombahs who made him.
And a goodly number of federal prosecutors,
congressional investigators and union dissidents are convinced
that Coia is a mob puppet who should be paying rent on his reformer's
Coia, in other words, is caught in an interesting
confluence of shadows.
Now union and government sources say Coia
could face new legal charges--perhaps this week--arising from
his lease of a vintage Ferrari from a union vendor. Under the
terms of a 1994 agreement that staved off a federal takeover of
the Laborers, Coia faces suspension if he's indicted. And he's
telling board members that means he's gone.
If that happens . . .
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney loses a charismatic
ally in a labor movement aflutter with weak pulses.
The Democratic Party loses a money spigot who funneled $3 million
in labor donations into its coffers. And the union, depending
on your perspective, loses an unlikely reformer--or finally dances
free of the mob's shackles.
That's the fascination of the story, really.
Who is Arthur Coia? The lawyer who spends
30 years doing the organizational crawl through the mobbed-up
coils of the Laborers? Whose father is named in federal racketeering
reports and served as the union's secretary-treasurer before him?
Or is he the man who eloquently champions reform and puts money
into organizing the dispossessed, black, white and brown alike?
How to account for the layers of family and
neighborhood and mob history, how to parse denial and motivation
and take his measure?
And all those subplots . . . the Justice
Department, whose prosecutorial hounds have bayed after Coia
and the Laborers for years and yet is accused of going soft on
Coia . . . the High Establishment Washington lawyers who assay
a silver-tongued defense of him . . . and everywhere in the background
that decayed hulk of a multinational business known as La Cosa
To read the bound volumes of testimony compiled
by prosecutors in the Laborers case, the monosyllabic depositions
of wise guys turned snitches and worms, is to understand that
the Mafia has few duchies left that jealously guard its traditions.
A good mobster, it turns out, is hard to find.
But in the end, you come back to Coia. To
the sins of his father and the compromises that tumbled him into
the land of shadow. To the difficulty of getting out.
Sins of the Father
The easy narrative, the one favored by critics,
goes like this:
Coia is his father's son.
It's not intended as a compliment. Coia's
father, Arthur E., who died a month after his son assumed the
union presidency in '93, ran the Laborers in Providence, R.I.
He had an eighth-grade education, shoveled
sewer muck, and had a nose that looked like it'd been whacked
by a plywood board. He handed out union pensions to favored city
council members, had a pronounced willingness to shut the city
down and was nobody's fool. "My father," Coia Jr. told the
the Providence Journal, "was a legend."
The senior Coia also was identified in federal
racketeering reports as a business associate of Raymond
L.S. Patriarca Sr., who, as it happens, was CEO of the New England
chapter of La Cosa Nostra. Patriarca had a face of pure and cool
menace. In the early 1960s, the FBI eavesdropped as Patriarca
Sr. talked about his business strategy. Faced with competition,
he explained, he found it helpful to "hit them, break legs
to get your way."
As these competitors sometimes stop breathing,
it became the view of federal law enforcement that an association
between La Cosa Nostra and the Laborers' Union was not a good
For the unions, though, a mob marriage evened
the odds a bit with Providence's WASP elite. The textile
and lumber barons had plummy New England accents and eating clubs
and memberships at the Rhode Island Country Club, and they shared
a pronounced distaste for the Catholic immigrants who, however
necessary to the operation of prosperous mills and machine shops,
clotted the streets with their strange customs and clangor.
Italians, local newspapers opined, were "very
largely ignorant, impulsive and vengeful." Contractors stiffed
them, cops beat them, courts ignored them. In 1929, the Macaroni
Riots--so named when local importers hiked the price of pasta
and immigrants started stoning stores--shook the Italian neighborhood
of Federal Hill.
When Coia Sr., son of the Charles Street
Italians, had problems with a contractor, he phoned Patriarca
Sr., of Federal Hill. Thomas Hillary, who identified himself as
a Cosa Nostra member and a professional criminal, was cross-examined
a year ago and described what happened next:
"If Arthur Coia Sr. told Raymond Patriarca
Sr. that there was a little problem, a guy wasn't hiring union
guys, he was hiring scab help, we would . . . visit the guy. Me,
and Fall River Dan and the Snake, and Blackjack and Bobo . . ."
It is axiomatic in Providence that when large
men known only by their nicknames come visiting, an employer has
a very big problem.
That cuts both ways, of course. Play with
wise guys, like the Laborers and Teamsters and Longshoremen did,
and pretty soon you're the fly that invites the spider to supper.
The mob cuts deals with favored contractors.
The mob demands seats of honor at labor conventions. The
mob beats up rival union candidates. The mob tends to view pension
funds as big wads of unclaimed money and a good job as
synonymous with not having to show up for work.
And when union underlings prove troublesome,
the mob tends to shoot them. You take a few steps and pretty
soon you can't stop falling.
Our guide at this point is the Rev. Joseph
L. Lennon, an 80-year-old Dominican with the hearty handshake
and incisive manner of a man expert at diocesan and secular
politics. He grew up as one of 11 brothers and sisters in Depression-era Providence, blessed with wit and broad shoulders.
He's a retired vice president of Providence College, he taught
philosophy to young Arthur Jr., and he sits on the board of the
Laborers' pension fund.
He takes a practical view of the failures
of flesh and spirit. "Sometimes you have to deal with the
Devil, tolerate the bad for the greater good," Lennon says.
"Providence has a tough power structure, it's the sort of
place where you know all your cousins, and it's all interconnected.
You tolerate a lot of things that you probably shouldn't."
Arthur Jr. grows up bathed in this duality.
Adores Dad, a smart kid, college-educated, radiates ambition.
He joins the union at 16. Earns a law degree, opens a firm, and
he's a crown prince. So he gets some Laborers work and faces no
danger of starving.
Then Coia Jr. and his father and Patriarca
Sr. and his son get indicted in an insurance scam case in 1980.
A judge throws it all out, eventually. The stink is bad, but no
one says Coia Jr. is as close to that stuff as the old man.
So what does Coia Jr. know about his dad and Patriarca Sr.? He knows his dad as a man of integrity. He knows that in those old neighborhoods a lot of people knew a lot of people.
"If you go back to those neighborhoods,
especially 80 years ago, they were close-knit neighborhoods,"
he says in a deposition last year. "People stuck together."
Coia Jr. lives in Barrington now, 20 miles
from Federal Hill and Charles Street.
He has a lovely home called South Winds,
a sprawling, peach-white place with red shingles and stout
oaks and motion-detection lights and a vast lawn that
sweeps down to the purple-gray of Narragansett Bay. He's survived
bouts with Hodgkin's and prostate cancer, he talks of
God, his kids go to the best schools.
A stand of trees separates his home from
the Rhode Island Country Club. No one talks about the mob
The Other Son--A Coda
Raymond Patriarca Jr. lives rent-free at
the moment, courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Short and
heavyset, he's the not-so-bright, not-so-courageous son of a legendary
crime boss. He's supposed to run the New England Family now, but
FBI tapes catch him begging big-pectoraled half-wits, in a very
un-Godfatherlike way, to leave his family alone. When he's not
in his cell with a view, he lives in the old neighborhood on Federal
Hill. He admires Coia Sr. as a business buddy of his father's
and he meets Arthur Jr. when they share an indictment. He discovers
they also share an interest in breeding Rottweilers but that doesn't
mean he likes the guy.
Patriarca tells the FBI that Coia Jr. is
"arrogant, well educated and has been given everything."
Coia, Patriarca says, "does not belong in Barrington. Coia,
like himself, would never be accepted as a member in the Rhode
Island Country Club. . . . Coia has forgotten where he comes from."
"Arthur," Patriarca Jr. says, "doesn't
have the balls to be a mobster."
Bill and Arthur
"Dear Arthur, I've just heard you've become a grandfather.
Congratulations! Thanks for the gorgeous
driver. It's a work of art. Bill."
Bill Clinton, that is. Nov. 4, 1994.
Coia's on the golden roll in 1993 and 1994.
He's the key vote in propelling John Sweeney into the presidency
of the AFL-CIO, of which the Laborers' International is a member.
He reinvigorates his union and gets a raise. (He makes $250,000.)
He's chairman of a swank Democratic Party fund-raiser at the Washington
Convention Center. Clinton's fund-raising chief circulates a memo
that identifies Coia as one of the Democrats' top 10 donors. It
feels so right.
But he's flying pretty close to the sun.
The same day the president writes him that
note, a prosecutor named Paul Coffey sends a memo to the White
House advising that the Justice Department plans to throw the
Laborers' Union into federal receivership and to portray Coia
as a "mob puppet." Soon the Republicans ask about the
mobster who dines at the White House.
Now it plays as Slick Willie dancing with
the Mob Puppet.
Coia's cancer returns and his father dies.
Back at the union, dangerous men aren't happy. A month after
the Miami vote that crowns Coia president, he has a wake for
his father in Providence. A Chicago guy with a size 54 suit asks
him to take a walk.
It's not a solicitous moment.
"[John] Matassa did the talking this
time," Coia recalls. "He didn't like and the boys in Chicago did not
like what I did by stealing and taking the presidency from Chicago."
Coia, whose hair is a wispy rumor after months
of chemotherapy, looks at Matassa. "I don't care what you
think about it." And he returns to the house.
Word gets back that Tony "Big Tuna"
Accardo, CEO of the Chicago Outfit, is profoundly disappointed.
Coia Jr. becomes concerned that bullets could interfere with his
circulation and hires a couple of bodyguards.
Coia's agita doesn't impress Justice Department
prosecutors. They've read Coia's depositions and newspaper
quotes over the years as he bobs and weaves on the question
of the Laborers and the mob: Didn't know the union was mobbed
up. Didn't know about Fosco's mob connections. The accusations
about Patriarca Jr. are just stuff he reads in the newspaper.
Big Tuna, does that mean he's a big guy?
It's too cute. The prosecutors are ready
to stake a metaphoric "Property of U.S. Government"
sign outside the Laborers' marble palace on 16th Street NW.
Then Coia's lawyer walks over to the Justice
Department and suggests a compromise: Let Coia reform the
union. He'll hire former FBI agents and appoint an in-house
independent prosecutor and give them the run of the house. If
the Justice Department determines that he's not acting in good
faith, they can kick him out. They can even keep investigating
The Justice Department accepts and Republicans
loose a wolf's howl. Over the next year the Republicans
subpoena 120 notes sent back and forth between the White House
and Coia. They show that Clinton, the Democratic National Committee
and White House counsel Harold Ickes know of concern about Coia's
alleged mob connections. They unearth a note that Hillary Rodham
Clinton's speechwriter writes about her impending speech to the
Laborers: "They are mob."
Now the narrative is so airtight: Prez Cut
Deal With Mobbed-Up Leader to Prevent Federal Takeover. Congressional
Republicans hold a hearing in late 1997, and call Coffey, a veteran
prosecutor of unquestioned integrity who has stalked La Cosa Nostra
for three decades. The Republican congressmen throw him the question,
Is Coia a Mob Puppet?
Coffey frowns. He's watched for two years
as Coia makes good on his bargain, as he reorganizes mobbed-up
locals and kicks out 115 mob-connected guys, including many friends
of Coia's father.
"That's what I said, but the jury's
out today," Coffey tells the congressmen. "The interesting
thing about Coia is that he's the first guy to come to the government
and say, 'It ain't true [that I'm a mob puppet] and I can prove
it's not true by ridding the union of organized-crime influence.'
A year passes. November 1998. The independent
union prosecutor, Robert Luskin, using a reform process established
by Coia, files papers charging another Laborers official with
"knowingly permitting organized crime members" to influence
But this time his target is Arthur Coia.
Rob a Bleeping Bank
Nino Cucinotta sweats, yells, stands and
pounds a table and holds his head like it hurts so bad. He weeps
like a baby.
Cucinotta is a retired Mafia killer who several
years ago took up a long-term tenancy in the federal pen. He's
testifying that Coia is mobbed up, that his reformer's rep is
a fraud. If he's right, Coia's gone from the union.
But Cucinotta is a piece of fast-unraveling
The witness tells the union hearing officer
he drove the Providence mob boss to meet Coia each week.
Then he says he took a big whack on the head and can't remember
anything about anything. Cucinotta says mobsters inducted him
into La Cosa Nostra against his will and he's just a humble butcher.
Then, with an authorial eye for detail, Cucinotta describes killing
What did you do that night, the prosecutor
asks in the manner of a man who doesn't want to hear the answer.
"That night, somehow, I hurt a couple
of people with a gun."
Did you kill them?
"Well, they both ended up dead . . ."
Two more wise guys and wannabe star witnesses
testify before the union's independent hearing officer. Their
accusations unspool wildly, everything contradicts everything
else. FBI and Rhode Island State Police surveillance tapes, for
instance, show no evidence that Patriarca Jr. met regularly with
Coia at his office.
Coia, in other words, does not appear to
be in great legal danger.
What is left is a portrait of late-20th-century
mob life in a dusty outpost of the decaying Cosa Nostra
empire. The days are past when an ebullient thug could proclaim,
as Boston mobster Gennaro Anguilo did for FBI tapes in the 1970s:
"I wouldn't be in a legitimate business for all the money
in the world."
This is the scene in 1980: The New England
boss of bosses, Patriarca Sr., is reduced to living in an
apartment over the New Brite Dry Cleaners, sharing a bedroom with
that future Mafioso, Thomas Hillary, who is like a son except
he's Irish so he can't take over the Family. You've seen the movie.
Patriarca Jr. is living in the old man's
house, but the FBI is always following him around and bugging
his house and it's giving him the shakes. The quality of the
Cosa Nostra foot soldiers, which is iffy, bugs him, too.
He reviews his troops and who's he got? Guys like Cucinotta, a butcher who sometimes forgets to go to work. Cucinotta is low on cash, so one day his friends say, follow us. They walk to a Federal Hill restaurant, burn his finger, mix his blood with their blood and that's that. Now he's a mobster. After that, Cucinotta recalls, "we sit down and start eating and drinking .
So what next, wise guy?
Raymond Patriarca Sr. instructs Cucinotta
to clean his apartment, take out the garbage, walk the
dogs and scoop their poop, too. Raymond Jr. tells him to pick
up Tampax for his wife.
Cucinotta asks Patriarca Jr. about getting
one-a those no-show jobs. There's a call made to the Laborers
and they give him a five-day-a-week job as a traffic flagman.
The pay's terrible and they actually expect him to work.
Do you know how embarrassing that is? He
and another gangster go ask the boss: "How are we going to
live?" "Go rob a [bleeping] bank," Patriarca
Jr. replies. "[Bleeping] go and rob a [bleeping] bank."
This confuses Cucinotta. Some days, already,
he can't remember his way home, he stops and cries in the car.
He's depressed, he's seeing a shrink.
"We're [bleeping] gangsters, we can't
even eat, we can't even put gas in the car and your answer is to
go rob a [bleeping] bank? "I mean, what's that?"
The case against Coia offers days and days
of this stuff, as prosecutor and defense probe the witnesses'
stories. Made guys, the creme de la mobster creme, talking about
petty hustles and dealing drugs and dressing up as cops and trying
to steal money out of precincts. Nobody has cash, everyone keeps
getting arrested. A bummer.
In the end the hearing officer, Peter P.
Vaira, says the witnesses are truth-challenged and finds
no evidence Coia is mob-connected. But he fines Coia $100,000
for an apparent conflict of interest for accepting a car
lease from a car dealer who had a union contract. This dealer,
as it happens, was friendly with Raymond Patriarca Sr.
The letter to union members is a crisp, elegant
break with the past. Evasions no longer serve. This union has
La Cosa Nostra blues.
"The reasons for . . . past denials
are unclear. Perhaps union leaders have been motivated by fear.
More likely, they have acted out of a sense of toleration born
of ignorance. 'Those guys aren't really bad,' they tell themselves,
'you just have to know how to play ball with them.' "
"There is no reason to deny its presence,
the mob has been a corrupting influence . . . in many unions,
Coia writes this column in the Laborers magazine
in 1995, and the effect is not unlike a man psychoanalyzing
himself. It's that duality all over again. Insist on reckoning
with the corrupt past; and insist, elsewhere, on the
iron integrity of your fathers.
Coia is, like many of his Laborers' generation,
a professional. He wears fine suits with French cuffs, builds
model training centers, holds management-labor seminars and pushes
aggressive organizing of the dispossessed.
But the doors on those family closets keep
flapping open. And no one can figure out how to deal with the
Not everyone buys the duality story line.
Union reformers, and a posse's worth of federal prosecutors, are
convinced Coia is corrupt or infinitely cynical or both. He reads
the prevailing winds, sees a chance to get the goombahs off his
neck, and plays ball with the Justice Department. End of story.
Maybe the Justice Department pushing and
the desire of a man to leave the mob behind are two rivers coming
together. Maybe Coia convinces himself he didn't know the truth,
and that he would have done things differently if he had known
it. Maybe half-truth sustains us.
"It's hard to come to terms with life,"
says Lennon, our expansive Dominican father. "You might
say he was friendly, because of his father, with the people he
bounced. It took courage to put the finger on them."
And now . . .
Rumors that the Justice Department intends
to indict Coia for the Ferrari lease run through the union like
mice on speed. It could happen as soon as this week.
A tearful Coia, sources say, is warning his
executive board to cast about for a successor.
There are the usual pretenders, and unlike
the old days they probably aren't in danger of getting bones
broken anymore. But you can get short odds on Armand Sabitoni,
a Laborers board member who happens to be Coia's longtime friend
and former law partner.
You will not be surprised to learn that Sabitoni's
father, Mondo, was a Laborers official. Or that Mondo
Sabitoni did business with Raymond Patriarca Sr. Who was
CEO of La Cosa Nostra of New England.
So you see, the sins of the fathers could
make it interesting all over again for the laborers. As Coia
says with the determination of a believer: "From the
shadows, we see light."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington