ARTHUR A. COIA HAS BEEN VERY good to the Democrats. His union, the Laborers' International, has given more than $3 million to the party since 1991. At a private meeting in the Oval Office in 1994, the president gave Coia, an avid golfer, one of Clinton's personal clubs, a nine-iron. Last week Coia was vice chairman of a black-tie gala that netted the Democrats $12 million for the fall. The union boss sat at the same table with star attractions Robin Williams and Stevie Wonder.
Coia, who presides over 750,000 mostly low-wage construction and waste-removal workers, fancies himself a labor statesman; the presidential nine-iron is proudly displayed in a glass case at union headquarters in Washington. But Coia, who has also publicly hobnobbed with Hillary Clinton, is turning into a convenient target for Republicans searching for Democratic bogeymen.
The union Coia runs is infamous for its suspected mob ties. Two years ago, as first reported in the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin, federal prosecutors presented the Laborers' International with a draft 212-page complaint that read like a who's who of racketeering. The draft detailed how mobsters like Carmine (The Snake) Persico, (Trigger Mike) Coppola and Anthony (Fat Tony) Salerno had allegedly conspired to loot millions out of the union. And it named Coia as the latest union president ""to have been associated with, and controlled and influenced by, organized-crime figures.''
Coia fought back by hiring Williams & Connolly, the same law firm that represents the Clintons in Whitewater. His lawyer, Brendan Sullivan, cut a deal with the Feds: Coia could remain if the union rid itself of any mob connections. His latest problem: a House GOP strategy memo raises the Coia case and calls for hearings into a ""Clinton cover-up of union mob ties.'' In fact, there is no evidence that the Clintons intervened to protect Coia or that Coia's donations are in any way illegal. In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Coia himself was all wounded innocence, declaring, ""This is like a sword right in my heart.'' Yes, he said, he had a ""concern'' about some of his colleagues, but suspicions were not proof. Rising from a chair, he wiped his hands and insisted, ""Give us a break.''
Prosecutors and FBI investigators say that Coia has had more than mere suspicions about the mob. His father and predecessor as a top union leader, Arthur E. Coia, was close to Raymond Patriarca, the legendary boss of the New England Mafia. According to an FBI informant, Coia Sr. once described Patriarca as a ""saint.'' Coia Jr. says he never met Patriarca, but he does allow that he tried to breed champion showdogs with Patriarca's son, Raymond Jr. (The dogs, Rottweilers, failed to mate.) Patriarca Sr. and both Coias were indicted in 1981 for allegedly taking kickbacks, but the case was dismissed because the statute of limitations had run out. In 1989, when Coia wanted to succeed his ailing father as the union's secretary-treasurer, he was summoned to Chicago to meet with a local union leader named John Serpico. Testifying under oath, Coia himself later described the scene to investigators: in a coffee shop at O'Hare airport, Serpico presented Coia to reputed mob capo Vincent Solano. Solano asked after Coia's father. Then, pounding the table with one hand, he pointed to Serpico and declared, ""We're grooming that man there to be the next general president'' of the union.
But Coia, not Serpico, eventually became the Laborers' boss. In 1995, with the Feds bearing down, Coia drove Serpico out. Some Justice officials say Coia is starting to clean up the union, but others worry the deal may be a sham to keep Coia in power. Federal officials deny there was any political pressure to go easy on Coia. Still, the administration has long been ambivalent about its potentially embarrassing friend. When Mrs. Clinton traveled to Miami last year to speak to the Laborers' International, she was warned not to meet privately with Coia. It was necessary to ""protect the First Lady,'' aide Harold Ickes told the then White House counsel, Abner Mikva. That same year, however, the First Family was happy to accept the union boss's $1,000 personal check -- made out to the Clintons' legal defense fund.