Arthur Coia's Friends in High Places

Article excerpt

The office of Big Labor boss Arthur A. Coia, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA), is a mere two blocks from the Clinton White House, but Mr. Coia's personal relationships with the president and first lady are even closer than that. Indeed, they are so close that the president and the union boss are virtual pen pals - "Thanks for the gorgeous driver," the president wrote in a personal note Nov. 4, 1994, referring not, as some might imagine, to a knockout female chauffeur, but to a golf club.

Mr. Coia seems to be at the top of the White House's VIP list, having qualified for international travel with the president aboard Air Force One and a White House dinner featuring the president playing the sax. At the White House's invitation, Mr. Coia visited Denver to see Pope John Paul II and attended a reception in Washington for the emperor of Japan.

Mr. Coia breakfasts at the White House with the first lady, who accepted his invitation to speak to the union's leadership in Miami Beach in February 1995 - perhaps to express the president's gratitude for Mr. Coia's support for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the first lady's health program. Or maybe it was to thank the labor boss for his substantial campaign contributions. Mr. Coia, whose union has approximately 700,000 members, has regularly drawn on millions of dollars of union dues from LIUNA's membership to finance hundreds of Democratic politicians ($3 million since 1993), to loan $100,000 to the Clinton inaugural committee and to underwrite $400,000 worth of Clinton-era "party-building activities" of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). He even co-chaired a June 1994 $1,500-a-plate DNC dinner for 2,000 guests that raised $3.5 million. LIUNA's relationship with the DNC became more active after the 1992 election, a union spokesman told The Washington Post after the $3.5 million fund-raiser, explaining, "There's a window of opportunity here. We have a president and an administration willing to listen."

As it happens, if anyone in June 1994 needed a "window of opportunity" from "a president and an administration willing to listen," it was Mr. Coia and his union. Both were soon to commence negotiations with the Justice Department to prevent the government from filing a lawsuit to seize control of the union and oust Mr. Coia and from issuing a multiple-count indictment against many LIUNA officials, including Mr. Coia.

In a 212-page complaint drafted by career officials at the Justice Department in November 1994, the federal government sought to bring action against LIUNA and Mr. Coia, among others, in order to "rid the union of domination and influence by members and associates of organized crime." The complaint was the culmination of a three-year investigation, spanning both Republican and Democratic administrations and involving the FBI, the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago and the organized crime and racketeering section of the Justice Department.

The 1994 complaint confirmed a 1987 conclusion by the State of New York Organized Crime Task Force, which identified numerous New York City LIUNA locals as being "dominated" by the Genovese, Gambino, Luchese or Colombo crime families, and a 1986 finding by the President's Commission on Organized Crime, which declared LIUNA to be "a union with clear ties to organized crime." The 1994 draft complaint asserted, "LIUNA has been infiltrated at all levels by corrupt individuals and organized crime figures who have exploited their control and influence over the union for personal gain and to the detriment of the union. …