by Byron York
In the next few months a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in New Jersey promises to reveal new information about the relationship of the Clinton administration and Arthur A. Coia, head of the Laborers International Union of North America. The union filed suit August 13 against two former officials, charging they violated an employment termination agreement with the Laborers by spreading "derogatory information" about Coia. The lawsuit cited an article in The American Spectator in which the two ex-officials, along with a third former union leader, described how Coia told them he discussed racketeering allegations against the union with President Clinton -- something both Coia and the White House have long denied.
Coia is a major political supporter of Bill Clinton -- one of the president's "top ten," according to Democratic National Committee documents uncovered in the course of the current campaign finance investigation. In 1993 and 1994, as Coia was giving hundreds of thousands of union dollars to Democrats, attending White House social events, and exchanging gifts with the president, the Justice Department was preparing a massive racketeering indictment against him and other union officers. Government prosecutors alleged that Coia had "associated with, and been controlled and influenced by, organized crime figures." They accused him of looting union funds to share with mob bosses. And they alleged that any union members who complained about such schemes were "intimidated into silence by violence, threats of violence, economic coercion, and by the known ties of corrupt...officials of the union with organized crime."
In November 1994, the government threatened to press the racketeering charges and take over the Laborers -- as it had done with the Teamsters a few years before. Prosecutors demanded that the union get rid of Coia, dump other mob-related officials, and enact wide-ranging reforms. A takeover seemed inevitable during the period from November 1994 to February 1995, as government negotiators and union representatives tried to reach an agreement on a plan to rid the union of mob influence.
During that time Coia and the White House continued their close political relationship -- all the more remarkable because one Justice Department official had warned the White House to stay away from the Laborers president, given the government's intention to portray him as a "mob puppet." Then -- in a development that stunned most observers -- the government backed down. The Clinton Justice Department dropped the RICO action, along with its demand that Coia be forced to leave office. Coia not only kept his job; the "mob puppet" was entrusted with the task of cleaning up the Laborers.
The deal prompted widespread suspicion that Coia had used his close ties to Bill Clinton to win soft treatment from the Justice Department. But all sides denied it, and -- even after House hearings in the summer of 1996 -- no hard evidence of a deal surfaced. Until the former Laborers officials decided to talk.
Samuel Caivano is the union's former vice-president for the New York/New Jersey area. His son David administered the union's New York state political action committee. In April of this year, both Caivanos -- along with another former official, John Serpico, once the union's vice-president for the Chicago area -- talked to The American Spectator.
In "Mob Rules: Bill and Arthur's Beautiful Friendship," (TAS, April 1997), the Caivanos and Serpico all said Coia had discussed the RICO problem with the president. David Caivano described a meeting that took place not long after the government threatened to file charges. Coia had called the union's regional vice-presidents to Washington headquarters; before meeting with the group as a whole, Coia discussed the RICO situation with his top lieutenants in gatherings of two and three. According to David Caivano, Coia, while talking about the proposed racketeering charges, turned to Caivano's father Samuel and said, "Sam, I talked to Bill Clinton about this. He knows we're not doing anything wrong. Don't worry." Samuel Caivano confirmed his son's account of the meeting, as did Serpico, who remembered that Coia "said he talked to Clinton and Clinton assured him that everything would be OK....Clinton was gonna help him out and take care of this thing."
David Caivano also discussed the connection between his union and former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes. One day in late 1993, the younger Caivano told The American Spectator, he was approached by a well-connected Laborers union lobbyist named Thomas Hartnett. "He comes down to the office one day and he approaches us about a guy named Harold Ickes," Caivano recalled. "He says, 'Look, we got to put this guy on the payroll. He's our guy. We'll be the only political action committee anywhere to have a guy in the White House.'" To Caivano, the prospect was irresistible. "We jump at it," he said. "We got a guy in the White House on our payroll!" (Caivano produced a copy of a letter -- dated December 1, 1993, and signed by Ickes -- confirming that the Laborers PAC had retained Ickes as an advisor.)
The recollections of both Caivanos and John Serpico were the first -- and, so far, only -- time any present or former union official has spoken publicly about a White House role in the RICO settlement. Certainly all three were in a position to know about the situation. And now, all have reason to be unhappy with the Laborers leadership. In the government's proposed RICO charges, both Serpico and Samuel Caivano were named alongside Arthur Coia as alleged organized crime associates. In the midst of the settlement talks, Coia forced both men out of their jobs as part of the union "clean-up" operation. David Caivano followed a few days later.
As part of a settlement reached when the Caivanos left, both sides agreed that neither party would "disseminate any derogatory information concerning any of the Parties or concerning any officer, director or employee of LIUNA, its affiliates, or its subordinate bodies." Then, earlier this year, a dispute arose about Samuel Caivano's union life insurance policy. The elder Caivano sued the union, accusing the Laborers of improperly terminating the policy. Now the union has counter-sued, alleging that Caivano spread "derogatory information" about Coia. In addition, the union filed suit against David Caivano -- who is not involved in his father's suit against the union -- asking for compensatory and punitive damages as a result of the magazine interview. The lawsuit demands that both Caivanos retract their statements published in The American Spectator (for his part, John Serpico says the Laborers wrote him a letter accusing him of breaking his own termination agreement, but so far no suit has been filed).
A union official says that since the matter is in litigation, the Laborers will not comment on the suit against the Caivanos. "We're not going to get into a discussion in the newspapers," says Michael Bearse, the union's general counsel. But eventually that will change. The Laborers have asked for a jury trial (the suits are Samuel J. Caivano v. Laborers' International Union of North America and Laborers' International Union of North America v. David J. Caivano, United States District Court, New Jersey, #97-3420). Should that happen, it is likely the Caivanos would seek to depose Arthur Coia and other key union officials. And then we might learn much more about the deal that let the Laborers off the RICO hook.
Byron York is an investigative writer with The American Spectator.