March 11, 1999
Republicans yesterday questioned a hearing
officer's ruling clearing Laborers Union President Arthur Coia
of mob ties, and said congressional hearings could be called if
the order is not overturned on appeal. Hearing officer Peter Vaira,
a former federal prosecutor hired by the union as part of a Justice
Department-approved internal review, said Tuesday there was insufficient
evidence to show Mr. Coia had associated with organized crime
Mr. Vaira's 108-page order found Mr. Coia
guilty on only one of 16 charges brought by Robert D. Luskin,
a former Justice Department organized crime prosecutor hired by
the union to head its internal cleanup. Mr. Coia was fined $100,000
for receiving improper financial benefits when a Rhode Island
car-leasing company helped him finance a $450,000 Ferrari.
The Justice Department also criticized the
ruling, saying in a statement it contained "serious factual
and legal errors." Assistant Attorney General James K. Robinson,
who heads the department's criminal division, and U.S. Attorney
Scott R. Lassar in Chicago urged Mr. Luskin to appeal the decision.
The Justice Department, under a 1995 consent
decree, retained the right to prosecute union officials and seize
control of the union if it was dissatisfied with the internal
Rep. Bill McCollum, Florida Republican and
chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, was the
first to question Mr. Coia's ties to organized crime. In 1996,
he called for hearings to determine whether the Justice Department's
internal review process for the union was justified and publicly criticized President
Clinton for maintaining a close relationship with Mr. Coia - both
in fund-raising and at social events - while the union was under
active federal investigation. "The continued close relationship with
Mr. Coia, knowing of the Justice Department investigation and
allegations, shows a callous indifference . . . to the standards
of propriety expected of the nation's chief executive officer,"
he said at the time.
In 1997, Mr. Luskin asked to pursue accusations
that Mr. Coia was tied to the mob, allowed mobsters to control
the union and received favors from companies that received union
business. The Luskin probe began as part of a process
established under a 1995 consent decree with the Justice Department.
The decree allowed the union to avoid a proposed 1994 racketeering
complaint, which named Mr. Coia in a conspiracy to embezzle funds
from locals in New York and accused him of seeking to control
the union "through a pattern of racketeering activity."
The 1994 complaint was dropped when the Justice
Department signed a February 1995 consent decree. The decision
to drop the complaint came a month after the Democratic National
Committee in a memo identified Mr. Coia as one of its "top
10 supporters." The memo to the White House served as the
basis for a plan to reward big-money donors with White House perks
- including overnight stays and coffees with the president. The memo, by DNC Finance Chairman Terry McAuliffe,
listed Mr. Coia among Democratic Party donors touted for access
to Mr. Clinton. While government lawyers were pressuring Mr. Coia
to resign as a condition of the complaint being dropped, he was
successfully cultivating a relationship with the Clintons.
A year earlier, Mr. Coia was identified in
a Justice Department memo to the White House as a "mob puppet."
Mr. Coia visited Mr. Clinton in the Oval Office, where he accepted
as a gift one of the president's personal golf clubs. He also
helped raise $12 million for Democrats during a black-tie affair
In a statement, Mr. Coia called the inquiry
"personally painful," but said it was "necessary
to preserve the integrity of our reform."