Bitter Fight Reveals Allegations of Corruption in Laborers' Union
The White House says Hillary Clinton was
advised of an investigation and told to avoid private conversation
with the union president.
The boss has suspended two executives because
of suspected ties to the Mafia. They've sued, alleging that the
boss has also been linked to organized crime; in fact, they said,
he was once indicted with a mob kingpin from New England.
The front office here is at the Laborers'
International Union, one of the largest unions in the country.
The boss is Arthur A. Coia. Formerly of Providence, he now moves
within America's most powerful circles; even President Clinton
enjoys his counsel.
But Coia and his union brothers are fighting
for their careers.
Their front-office brawling has spilled into
open court. It has brought to public light a swirl of allegations
against Coia and other Laborers' executives - as well as behind-the-scenes
negotiations with the Justice Department.
The most stunning document is a draft of
a civil racketeering complaint that Justice officials delivered
to the Laborers' Washington headquarters last November. The draft
was unsigned, and never filed by the federal government in court;
it surfaced as an exhibit in a lawsuit sparked by the internal
The draft complaint synopsizes a three-year
investigation into the Laborers'; it portrays the union as hopelessly
corrupt, rife with organized crime, and led by men who illegally
-sometimes violently - crushed dissent and skimmed union funds.
The document zeroed in on Coia. According
to court records, the draft said that Coia has "associated
with, and been controlled by and influenced by organized crime
figures." The draft also said that he had conspired as recently
as last year to funnel money from upstate New York locals to the Buffalo Mafia.
The Justice Department was threatening to
seek a government takeover of the union. And it was demanding
the ouster of Coia and other union executives.
Three months of negotiations followed. The
Justice Department dropped its demand for Coia's removal. Meanwhile,
Coia suspended two vice presidents accused of having mob connections
- including Samuel J. Caivano, a longtime ally of Coia's from
In February, the Laborers' and the Justice
Department signed an agreement designed to reform the union; both
sides trumpeted the pact as historic in union-government relations.
Overseeing the union's cleanup was one of the draft complaint's
original targets: Arthur Coia.
Senior Justice Department officials have
declined to explain why they allowed Coia to remain in charge
when their draft said he had connections to organized crime. But
that is exactly what Caivano has been wondering; his lawyers argue
that Coia betrayed union colleagues to curry favor with the government.
"The head man initially targeted by
the government was able to 'trade down' and convince the government
to take two vice-presidents in his stead," Caivano's lawyer
argued in court papers. "Defendant Coia had just struck one
of the most delicate and fragile arrangements of his life."
That Coia remains in charge of the Laborers'
also perplexed a federal judge who recently held a hearing on
Caivano's complaint. "Here's a man, the president of the
union, who's accused of being associated with organized crime,
the focus of a 212-page complaint . . . ," U.S. District
Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said last month. "Why wasn't
Robert D. Luskin, the lawyer who is representing
the Laborers' in the negotiations, says that the draft complaint
was more of a bargaining tool for the government to initiate talks
than an accurate depiction of the union and Coia. Still, he acknowledges
that some of the Justice Department's concerns about the union
Coia, meanwhile, denies any ties to organized
crime, and derides the government's draft complaint as "a
history book," "a wish list" and "window dressing."
He also praises the agreement that allows him to remain as general
president, with new powers to foster reform.
"It's the best of times," he says.
Arthur Coia is paid $191,000 a year to oversee
a union with some 770,000 members in the United States and Canada
- many of whom clean up hazardous waste, work on road crews, and
toil at construction sites. The dues paid to the International
exceeds $25 million a year.
Coia's union loaned $100,000 to the Clinton
inaugural committee, and ranks among the top 10 contributors to
the national Democratic Party. He co- hosted a $1,500-a-plate
fund-raiser that netted $3.5 million for the Democrats. He pledged
$100,000 in Laborers' funds to the U.S. Botanic Garden, which
gave him and his wife entree to an exclusive dinner attended by
Along the way, Coia has gone from a face
in the White House crowd to someone the President calls by first
name. The two men share a passion for golf, memorialized by the
exchange of gifts of fancy golf clubs. They have also developed
what Coia calls a "letter-writing friendship."
Coia's letters have pledged support for Mr.
Clinton's economic and health care plans; expressed sympathy on
the death of Mr. Clinton's mother; asked for help with a labor-training
project in Mexico; and given thanks for a breakfast meeting with
The President often responds, sometimes formally,
sometimes personally. In addition, the White House has extended
various invitations to Coia: to see the Pope in Denver; to a reception
for the Emperor of Japan; to the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian
peace agreement; to breakfast with the First Lady; to accompany
Mr. Clinton on a campaign trip to Pawtucket.
In a single week last October, Coia sent
Mr. Clinton four letters. In one note, he and his wife thanked
the President for a "wonderful evening of dinner and entertainment
at the White House."
Last Nov. 4, Mr. Clinton sent Coia a handwritten
note congratulating the union leader on becoming a grandfather,
and thanking him for the gift of a "gorgeous" golf club
crafted by Coia's clubmaker in East Providence.
That same day, Mr. Clinton's Justice Department
dropped off the draft complaint at the Laborers' Washington headquarters
that gave the devastating overview of Coia's union - a union it said had "an aura of criminality
and pervasive lawlessness." Among its allegations:
The Mafia's dominant organized-crime families
- Genovese, Lucchese, Colombo - have been running or influencing
union locals in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo,
Florida and New England.
Union leaders have manipulated trusteeships,
district councils and hiring practices to suppress dissent and
to maintain a corrupt status quo.
It said that Vice President Samuel Caivano,
a prominent labor leader in New Jersey, was a Mafia associate
who had appointed mob-connected men to oversee union affairs in
New York and New Jersey.
Nor did the draft complaint spare Coia. It
resurrected his 1981 indictment - along with his father and New
England mob boss Raymond L.S. Patriarca, both now dead - on racketeering
charges. The case was dismissed because the indictment was filed
after the statute of limitations expired.
The money in those funds, the document said,
would be used to establish mob-controlled training centers in
Buffalo and Albany. Those centers would then be used to reward
mob-connected contractors, provide jobs to Buffalo organized-crime
figures, and pay for "unnecessary or extravagant" travel
by union officials and others.
The document called for the removal of Coia,
Caivano and other union executives and the immediate appointment
of federal trustees. This step, it said, would ensure more open
elections, correct "financial malpractice," and eliminate
The Justice Department gave Coia's union
two weeks to respond.The Laborers' scrambled to salvage its cherished
autonomy.It hired a former Justice Department lawyer,
Robert Luskin, to negotiate with high-ranking Justice officials.
On Nov. 16, Luskin met with Paul E. Coffey,
chief of the Justice Department's organized crime and racketeering
section. Luskin says that Coffey asked whether Coia was prepared
to "step aside" during settlement discussions, since
the union president was personally named in the draft complaint.
Luskin says he told Coffey that the request
was inappropriate, and that Coia would not step down. After that,
he says, Justice Department officials never again raised the matter
of Coia's resignation - and neither did the union.
"After the first meeting with the government,
on Nov. 16, the terms of that draft complaint were never, never
a subject of discussion between us," Luskin recalls. "The
subjects of discussions were: 'How far can we trust you, why should
we trust you, and what are you prepared to do?' "
In fact, by early December, Coia had his
personal lawyers participating in the negotiations, including
Brendan V. Sullivan Jr., whose defense of Oliver North during
the Irangate hearings had earned him national prominence.
On Dec. 14, Luskin says, the government proposed
a settlement that called for the removal of Caivano, Serpico,
and others - but not Coia. Said Luskin in a court affidavit: "At
no point thereafter was Mr. Coia's status as General President
a subject of discussion or an issue in whether or not the government
would file the draft complaint."
On Jan. 4, president Coia informed his executive
board of the Justice Department investigation that was threatening
the union's future. Caivano charges in court records that Coia
had not mentioned it earlier because "he was trying to strike
a deal to keep his position."
Two weeks later, the executive board reconvened.
It was asked to approve an ethics code that gave Coia unprecedented
enforcement powers, and to adopt new disciplinary procedures.
Both measures passed.
Moments later, Coia suspended the only two
executives to vote against the proposals, Caivano and Serpico,
apparently based on the government's allegations that both men
had organized-crime connections.
Coia countered with a "special notice":
"The bottom line is clear: The General Executive Board and
I are working with, not for, the Federal Government in our effort
to make certain this union is operating in the best interests
of our members."
Caivano and Serpico also filed separate lawsuits
against the union. A common charge in their complaints: That Coia
had ousted two former allies to appease the government and to
save his own career.
Stephen M. Ryan, one of Caivano's lawyers,
expressed disbelief at a U.S. District Court hearing in February.
How could Caivano and Serpico be removed, he wondered, when the
draft complaint portrays Coia as a "second-generation racketeer."
Ryan said the government's agreement with
the union had allowed Coia to "save his own skin at the expense
of other people."
A videotape, filed in court, captures Coia
speaking at a testimonial for Caivano a few years earlier. He
called Caivano a close family friend, and "more than a labor
leader. He is truly a quality human being, a humanitarian, someone
I am proud to know and be part of his family."
On Feb. 15, after three months of negotiations,
the Justice Department announced that it had reached an agreement
with the Laborers' that was designed to "rid the union of
the influence of organized crime."
The agreement gave the union 90 days to demonstrate
its commitment to internal reform. But the government reserved
the right to take over the union at any time in the next three
years if it believes that the union's actions are inadequate.
In addition to Coia, the document was signed
by three top Justice lawyers: Assistant Attorney General Jo Ann
Harris; James B. Burns, the U.S. Attorney for Chicago; and Paul
Coffey, the chief of the organized crime and racketeering section.
Craig Oswald, an assistant federal prosecutor
in Chicago who participated in the negotiations, emphatically
denies any "sweetheart deal for Arthur Coia."
"Having participated in the heated negotations
myself - as one of the people who lost my temper more than others
would have - this is not in any way a sellout," Oswald says.
Coia "theoretically is subject to discipline."
Nevertheless, the agreement left Coia in
charge. It makes no mention of the allegations contained in the draft complaint that had
been delivered to the union just three months earlier.
"What happened was an extraordinary
placing of trust," says Luskin. "It's unlike anything
that's happened before. It is the first time that a union, in
an organized, aggressive way, has decided to clean up its own
In a statement Friday, Assistant Attorney
General Harris - the Justice Department's number-three official
- disclosed that the government and the union had developed a
new, "agreed upon RICO complaint and consent decree"
that it reserves the right to file until February 1998.
There is no indication that the Clinton administration
intervened in behalf of the Laborers' or that the union sought
such intervention. However, the situation reflects the uneasy
coexistence of business and politics in Washington, where, Luskin
says, "there's always an assumption of political strings
"I made it very clear that it was not
going to happen here," Luskin says. "And so far as I
know, absolutely nobody contacted anybody at a political level.
. . . It would be offensive and it would be death."
Coia agrees. He says that in the weeks after
receiving the draft complaint, he continued to meet with top Clinton
administration officials - but only to discuss labor issues.
Days after the Justice Department delivered
its ultimatum to the Laborers', Mr. Clinton sent two notes to
Coia. In one letter, which opened with "Dear Art" and
closed with "Bill," the President promised to share
Coia's views on labor with Labor Secretary Robert Reich. In the
other, Mr. Clinton thanked Coia for his support of the Democratic
Coia says he was too embarrassed to mention
the Justice Department case to the top-level federal officials
he was dealing with at the time. "Someone says that the government
wants to take over the union that I lead?" says Coia. "That's
an embarrassment to me."
Word of the federal investigation of Coia
and the Laborers' had reached the White House Counsel's Office
by early February, when First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was
preparing for a trip to Florida to speak at a Laborers' convention
- at Coia's invitation.
A White House deputy chief of staff advised
the First Lady to avoid "private meetings or conversations
with Mr. Coia" because he was "currently under investigation,"
according to a White House statement issued Friday.
The statement also said:
President Clinton was not told of the Laborers'
investigation because "there was no occasion for which he
had a need to know this information."
But Coia has a different recollection. He
says that during an informal moment, he asked the First Lady if
she had heard about his efforts to clean up a corrupt local in
New York. " 'I want you to know that we are, have
taken over that problem in New York City,' " Coia recalls
Coia and Luskin, meanwhile, believe that
they will be allowed to continue cleaning up the union without
government intervention. They point out that the union has hired
former federal prosecutors and ex-FBI agents to investigate nearly
100 allegations of union corruption.
Luskin, who will oversee those investigations, says that he will doggedly pursue any lead he receives. He says, for example, that disciplinary proceedings are moving forward against Serpico and Caivano (Earlier this month U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan
denied, for now, Caivano's bid to be reinstated
on the ground that the Laborers' official had not exhausted his
Coia denies the characterization of him in
the document - including the organized-crime allegations - and
says he would welcome a background investigation. Such openness,
he says, is in keeping with the "spirit of alliance and partnership"
that now exists between the government and the union.
Response from the White House
In response to questions from the Journal-Bulletin,
the White House issued a statement on Friday about the Justice
Department investigation of the Laborers' Union. That statement
reads in part:
The First Lady accepted an invitation to speak at a Tri-Fund Conference in Florida on Feburary 6, 1995. A few days prior to her departure, Ms. Clinton was informed by the Deputy Chief of Staff that the Justice Department had informed the Counsel's Office that
Mr. Coia was currently under investigation;
therefore, she should not have any private meetings or conversations
with Mr. Coia. 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 President and First Lady did not discuss
this matter with Mr. Coia at any time.
Copyright © 1997 The Providence Journal Company.
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