The Washington Times

Republicans Question Coia Ruling. Want Order Overturned, Threaten Congressional Hearings

Jerry Seper
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 figures.

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 cleanup.

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 1996.

In a statement, Mr. Coia called the inquiry "personally painful," but said it was "necessary to preserve the integrity of our reform."

(Copyright 1999)

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