BY ROBERT MANOR
AND CAM SIMPSON
March 10, 1999
The Laborers' International Union of North
America on Tuesday exonerated its president of internal charges
that he allowed organized crime to influence the union. Arthur Coia will retain his position. He
is the first major official of the union to escape conviction
in an internal anti-corruption probe.
The union has 750,000 members, 19,000 of
them in Chicago
The decision by union hearing officer Peter
Vaira dealt a blow to organized crime prosecutors who have long
said the Laborers union is a mob stronghold. Vaira declined to
comment Tuesday. Vaira did find Coia guilty of conflict of
interest in a deal where he obtained use of a Ferrari from an
auto dealership that sold vehicles to his union. Coia, who is
paid $254,000 a year, must pay a $100,000 fine.
Justice Department officials criticized Vaira's
decision, saying "the opinion contains serious factual and
legal errors." A joint statement from Scott Lassar, the U.S.
attorney in Chicago, and James K. Robinson, the assistant U.S.
attorney general in Washington, said they will urge union lawyers
to appeal the case. For four years, the Justice Department has
had a signed decree that would allow them to put the union in
trusteeship. They can impose the decree if they believe they union
has not done enough to purge itself of organized crime.
The department would not say Tuesday whether
officials were closer to taking over the union in the wake of
Vaira's ruling. Until Tuesday, the union had never lost a case
against its upper-level officials.. About 200 union officials
have been thrown out of the union, and many locals along with
the Laborers' Chicago District Council are now in trusteeship
because of the anti-corruption drive. Coia said his exoneration shows the union
is committed to reform. "When charges were first filed against
me, I said that we had chosen the path of reform and needed to
go wherever it might lead," Coia said. "And while that
process may have been personally painful, it was necessary to
preserve the integrity of our reform."
Last year, Coia was charged with 16 counts of wrongdoing by Robert Luskin, who serves as the union prosecutor. "Coia knowingly associated with members of organized crime, knowingly permitted organized crime members to influence the affairs" of the union, Luskin said at the time.
On Tuesday, he defended his case against
Coia. "We would not have brought the charges
if we did not believe in good faith they were warranted,"
Luskin said. Some of the most serious charges against
Coia involved his dealings with John Serpico, a former top laborers
union official and the chairman of the Illinois International
Port Authority, the sprawling industrial harbor on the South Side.
Serpico has been identified in congressional
testimony as an associate of organized crime. He has been appointed
chairman of the port authority by every governor since 1975, with
the exception of Gov. Ryan, who has not decided on his tenure.
Documents released Tuesday by the union describe
a 1988 meeting between Coia, Serpico and the late North Side mob
boss Vincent Solano. Coia was seeking Serpico's support to become
secretary-general of the union. "Coia contacted Serpico and agreed to
meet with him in Chicago," the report says. "When Coia
arrived at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Serpico led him to a small
coffee shop inside the terminal and introduced him to Vincent
Solano was a laborers union official who
also ran the mob's gambling and rackets in the Rush Street, Gold
Coast, Old Town and Rogers Park neighborhoods. ; Solano said Coia could become secretary-general,
but could not expect to rise higher in the union. "I want you to understand this-that
John Serpico will be the next general president of the union,"
the report quotes Solano as saying. "We're grooming that
man there to be the next general president of the union."
Through a spokesman, Serpico declined to
Coia later became president anyway, and made
Serpico the union's chief judicial officer with a salary of $100,000. But Vaira, the hearing officer, said Coia
had promoted Serpico "not to perpetuate Serpico's organized
crime influence on the union, but as a method to facilitate his
removal from the union." Coia later testified against Serpico
at hearings that eventually led to Serpico losing his office at