Early Warnings To Avoid Coia Ignored By Clintons
By JOHN E. MULLIGAN
Journal-Bulletin Washington Bureau
RELATED STORIES: The Worlds of Arthur Coia
WASHINGTON -- The White House apparently was alerted in early
1994 that Laborers' union chief Arthur A.
Coia was the target of a federal racketeering probe, but President
Clinton continued to court his political support.
Internal Justice Department documents obtained
by the Journal-Bulletin show that federal prosecutors sought to
convey their concern about Coia, the general president of the
Laborers' International Union of North America, to the White House
much earlier than the administration has previously acknowledged.
The chief of the Justice Department's organized
crime and racketeering section, Paul E. Coffey, urged in a Jan.
11, 1994, memo that Hillary Rodham Clinton "should avoid
any direct contact with Coia," since prosecutors planned
to "portray him as a mob puppet."
But throughout 1994, Mr. Clinton kept up
his political friendship with Coia, in ways big and small: over
breakfast at the White House and over dinner at gala Democratic
fund-raisers; accepting a handmade golf shirt; discussing federal
job-training grants for the Laborers' union.
In October 1994, Mr. Clinton was considering
appointing Coia to a presidential commission when an even more
emphatic alert went up to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno. Asst. Atty. Gen.
Jo Ann Harris, the third-ranking officer in the Justice Department,
told Reno of evidence that "Coia was associated with and
controlled by the New England Family of La Cosa Nostra."
That was two weeks before Mr. Clinton hosted
Coia in the Oval Office on Oct. 20, 1994, and made his now-famous
gift of a golf club to the Rhode Island-born labor leader.
The memos detailing the prosecutors' concerns
about Mr. Clinton's relationship with Coia are part of a raft
of documents that the White House, the Justice Department and
the Laborers' union have provided to the House Judiciary Committee's
subcommittee on crime, which is conducting two days of hearings
into union corruption. The Journal-Bulletin obtained the memos
The House panel is looking into how Coia
fended off the Justice Department racketeering complaint and whether
his political connections played a role.
No evidence of White House interference has
emerged. And until the new documents surfaced it appeared that
no high-level efforts had been made to caution the White House
about Coia until January 1995, after prosecutors had presented
him with their draft complaint.
House crime subcommittee chairman Bill McCollum,
R-Fla., referred to the memos during yesterday's hearing, saying
that they called into question "the appearances and appropriateness"
of the President's dealings with Coia.
When the Journal-Bulletin began reporting
on the Laborers' case last year, a key question was why Mrs. Clinton
had given a speech to the union's Tri-Fund Conference in Orlando,
Fla., in February 1995, while lawyers for the Justice Department
and the union were still embroiled in their negotiations over
the union's -- and Coia's -- future.
The big news from the latest round of memos
is that the Justice Department had frowned on the prospect of
contact between Mrs. Clinton and Coia a full year before that,
when she was invited to address the same annual conference by
Here is a brief chronology of what the memos
show and how Coia's contacts with the Clintons continued from
early 1994 to Feb. 13, 1995, when the union's agreement with the
Justice Department was signed:
--On Jan. 11, 1994, Coffey, the chief of
the department's organized-crime unit, wrote to Deputy Asst.
Atty. Gen. John C. Keeney with his advice about the First Lady's
plan to speak at a union conference in Florida on Feb. 2 or 3.
Coffey said that the U.S. Attorney's office
in Chicago would soon recommend a civil racketeering suit against
the union and Coia, among other defendants. Coffey said he understood
that the Labor Department had told the White House that some of
the defendants would be at the conference. He said, "it might
be a good idea to double-check on that," and added that Mrs.
Clinton's speech by satellite would be no problem.
Coffey concluded: "It might be prudent
to recommend that she avoid any direct contact with Coia, if possible,
inasmuch as we plan to portray him as a mob puppet."
Mrs. Clinton made the televised speech, but
the record of Coia's continuing contacts with the White House
shows no effort to put distance between him and the First Family.
He attended a presidential dinner, for example, on April 19, 1994.
And in May, Coia attended a White House bill signing, and he gave
$50,000 to one of Mrs. Clinton's favorite charities, the U.S. Botanic Garden. That
won Coia and his wife entree to an exclusive dinner attended by
--In a Sept. 15, 1994, memo, White House
Counsel Lloyd N. Cutler formally asked the FBI to check on Coia,
because Coia was being considered for appointment to the President's
Advisory Council on Competitiveness.
The FBI's Oct. 7 response describes its years
of investigation of Coia and states: "Coia is a criminal
associate of the New England Patriarca organized-crime family."
The report also notes that Coia was under "ongoing civil investigation by the
FBI," and cautions against disclosure of that fact. The report
says that Abner J. Mikva, Cutler's replacement as White House
counsel, requested the check.
The memo from Asst.Atty. Gen. Harris to Reno
-- labeled "DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE URGENT REPORT"
-- is undated but refers to the advisory-council appointment
and the White House request for an inquiry on Coia.
"The Criminal Division has long had
information, including public testimony and information from cooperating
witnesses, that Coia was associated with and controlled by the
New England Crime Family of La Cosa Nostra," Harris wrote.
She added that within several weeks the Justice
Department's organized-crime unit planned to file its
complaint, accusing Coia and two previous union presidents "of
being puppets of the LCN [La Cosa Nostra]. "
(Coia's lawyer, Howard Gutman, said yesterday
that he understood that federal authorities did not consider Coia
"a criminal associate" of organized crime. Gutman said,
rather, that they had characterized him as "associated with"
mob figures, including union members with whom he dealt in his
job. Gutman said the lesser designation may refer merely "to having dinners and the like" with such
Coia never got his presidential appointment,
but on Oct. 20, 1994, he did get a personal meeting with President
Clinton to lobby for federal grants. Deputy White House Chief
of Staff Harold M. Ickes also attended the Oval Office meeting.
That was the occasion of Mr. Clinton's now
famous gesture of friendship to the labor leader: He presented
Coia with a Calloway "Divine Nine" golf club. Coia reciprocated
days later with the gift of an expensive driver, handmade by a
Rhode Island artisan, bearing the Presidential seal.
--On Nov. 4, Coffey, the chief of the Justice
Department's organized-crime unit, delivered the draft
racketeering complaint to Coia's office, at Laborers' headquarters,
in Washington. That complaint was never filed in court. Instead,
there ensued three months of negotiations between Coia's legal
team and the Justice Department.
Meanwhile, the union asked Mrs. Clinton to
keep her date to address the Feb. 6, 1995, Tri-Fund Conference
in Florida. When the Journal-Bulletin asked about that last year,
the White House press office issued a statement that said in part:
"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. . .
White House spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn
said last night that the White House had no explanation yet of
whether the Clintons had, in fact, ever been cautioned against
meetings with Coia after the time of Coffey's Jan. 11, 1994, memo
-- and if so why their contacts with Coia proliferated through
--On Feb. 13, 1995, the union and the Justice
Department signed an agreement that permitted the union to mount
its own internal campaign against mob corruption, and let Coia
stay on as president. The Justice Department retained the right,
until February 1998, to take over the union if the in-house union
cleanup is deemed unsatisfactory.
The documents provided to the Journal-Bulletin
do not make clear whether the warnings about the imminent proceedings
against Coia ever got to President Clinton and, if so, when and
But the memos do make clear that -- more
than a year before the Justice Department-Laborers' agreement
-- top-level federal prosecutors were sensitive to the propriety
of Coia's contacts with the President and the first lady, and
tried to send warnings up the chain of command.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer, N.Y., the ranking
crime-subcommittee Democrat, ridiculed the idea that a president
could avoid all contact with labor leaders whose unions are accused
He produced a photograph of then-Sen. Bob
Dole with the late Jackie Presser, the notorious Teamsters leader,
and asked whether "that disqualifies Bob Dole from being
president." Asked about the appropriateness of Mr. Clinton's
contacts with Coia, Schumer said, "Do I think the President
and First Lady did anything wrong? The answer is no."
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