The Slate Gist

The Clintons and the Mob

The Laborers’ International Union of North America represents 750,000 construction and waste-removal workers. Their leader is named Arthur A. Coia. Coia is a major contributor to Democratic causes, and also has had extensive social dealings with the Clintons. Early last year, the Justice Department allowed Coia to oversee a massive cleanup of his union, rather than filing a racketeering lawsuit, removing Coia, and putting the union under government control.

The Laborers’ ties to the mob have been studied often, most recently in a Justice Department investigation begun during the Bush administration. The October 1994 report of that probe charged, among many other specifics, that the union’s presidents, including Coia, “have been controlled and influenced by organized crime figures” for decades. Coia, whose entire career has been in the Laborers’ union, is a wealthy man thanks in part to real-estate dealings with his own. His father was also a top union official who, according to federal investigators, had long-standing mob contacts.

Coia’s ties to the Clintons began in early 1993, when the Laborers loaned $100,000 to Clinton’s inaugural committee. After Coia rose to the union presidency in March 1993, he and his wife had numerous contacts with the Clintons. A House Judiciary subcommittee (which held hearings on this matter in July) has issued a list of more than 100 “transactions” between the two families extending through May of this year. These include watching an NBA game together at the White House, receptions, bill signings, breakfasts, dinners, gift exchanges (an autographed basketball for the president, the book of Psalms for Hillary) and an invitation (declined) from Clinton to Coia to join him on a trip to Haiti. The Haiti invitation was relayed by White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, a lawyer who used to represent the union.

Coia also aided Clinton politically. The Laborers’ PAC contributed more than $2 million to the Democratic Party and its candidates in 1993 and 1994. Coia broke with most of the labor movement to support NAFTA. Coia personally contributed $1,000 to the Clintons’ legal defense fund, and helped organize Democratic Party fund-raisers. He joined the board of “Back to Business,” a group of prominent Democrats dedicated to responding to attacks on the Clintons’ integrity.

In January 1994, Hillary Clinton was scheduled to give a satellite address to top Laborers’ union officials. The chief of the Justice Department’s organized-crime section recommended in a memo that she “avoid direct contact with Coia, if possible.” In September 1994, the White House considered appointing Coia to the presidential council on competitiveness. It submitted his name to the FBI for a background check. The FBI warned that Coia “is a criminal associate of the New England Patriarca organized crime family” and was under confidential investigation. The appointment was dropped. Two weeks later, however, Coia met with Clinton in the Oval Office to “share some thoughts and ideas,” according to his thank-you note. The next month, Coia and his wife attended a White House dinner at which the president played the saxophone.

On Nov. 4, 1994, Coia received a handwritten note from Clinton thanking him for a “gorgeous” custom-made golf club and congratulating him on becoming a grandfather. The same day, Coia received a copy of the Justice Department’s report concluding that he was “controlled and influenced” by the mob. In February 1995, a week after Hillary Clinton addressed a Laborers’ conference in Florida (see photo), Coia and the Justice Department signed an agreement that gave Coia until 1998 to clean up the union under government supervision rather than placing the union under direct federal control.

This agreement is central to the controversy. Did Coia get special treatment because of his Clinton connection? In more than 15 other racketeering cases, the government filed the case in court and ultimately took over control of the union. Defenders of the Laborers’ arrangement argue that it will clean up the union just as effectively, and at less expense. Back in 1987, Newt Gingrich and other Republicans were among 245 House members who wrote a letter to Attorney General Ed Meese specifically opposing a federal takeover of four unions including the Laborers, and protesting the use of federal racketeering laws against the unions.

Since the agreement, Coia has hired 50 former FBI agents and several former federal prosecutors to pursue the internal reform. So far, that effort has ousted 27 union members, put four local unions under a central trusteeship, and overturned four tainted local elections. Federal field agents and prosecutors nevertheless have been quoted (anonymously) saying that the union is still mobbed up. They say the government has made a sweetheart deal that is simply allowing Coia to purge his rivals.

At the subcommittee hearing, the key Justice Department officials testified that the White House was not involved in the settlement with the Laborers in any way. No direct evidence to the contrary was produced. Democrats note that the Republican Party has had plenty of contacts with disreputable unions. Ronald Reagan gladly took endorsements from the Longshoremen and the Teamsters, two unions that were the targets of FBI racketeering probes at the time.