As president of the Laborers International Union of North America, Arthur A. Coia worked closely with a watchdog group and federal prosecutors in a huge effort to remove organized-crime figures from Local 210 and other union locals throughout the country.
More than 100 officials in the laborers union, including 28 in Buffalo, have been accused of consorting with mobsters.
But now, the watchdog group -- and the U.S. Justice Department -- are turning their attention to Coia.
Coia's alleged ties to organized crime are under scrutiny by in-house investigators for the union, and also by federal agencies, including the FBI and Labor Department, union and law enforcement sources confirmed Monday.
The in-house probe is being conducted by the inspector general's office of the international.
The federal investigation is being conducted by agents in several cities, including Buffalo. The investigations could lead to criminal charges and/or Coia's losing his job.
"(Coia) has already been questioned and deposed several times. They've been looking at him, just as they looked at the others. . . . They're going after him," said one source familiar with the inspector general's investigation.
Coia himself expects to be charged by the inspector general.
A friend and political supporter of President Clinton, Coia could not be reached Monday. But his office in Washington sent The Buffalo News a copy of a letter in which Coia says he expects to be charged by the union with ethical violations, but denies any wrongdoing.
"I am innocent of those charges. . . . There is no truth in the allegations," Coia said in the letter to other union leaders. "I must answer a question: Do I believe in this reform, now that I am its target? . . . The answer must be yes."
The inquiries into Coia and his alleged mob ties were "a long time in coming," said Marc Panepinto, a Local 210 member who heads a group of laborers who are unhappy with recent developments at the Buffalo local.
"If the international is going to clean house, President Coia should be held to the same scrutiny that was focused on 28 of our people here in Local 210," said
Panepinto, chairman of a group called the Laborers Information Coalition. "I don't think there's any question that he has had some relationships in the past with some (organized-crime) people."
A number of angry Local 210 members have claimed in the past that Coia was receiving special treatment in the investigation being conducted by the Laborers' Inspector General, W. Douglas Gow.
In court papers filed in 1995, Local 210 charged that the Justice Department had strong suspicions about Coia.
According to the court papers, Justice Department lawyers described Coia in that year as someone who had been "associating with members of the New England La Cosa Nostra family for a substantial period of time, and had received kickbacks in connection with the purchase of group insurance for (union) members."
In July 1996, former Local 210 business manager Ronald Fino told a congressional panel that Coia was controlled by the Mafia.
Fino, who left Buffalo and became an FBI informant in early 1989, wore a black hood to protect his identity during the hearing.
Fino testified that Coia once told him he needed to get permission from Buffalo Mafia leaders before Fino could run for vice president of the international.
At the same hearing, a Republican congressman said Coia arranged for the union to donate $200,000 to the Democratic National Committee and $80,000 to the Clinton presidential campaign fund.
Meanwhile, the congressman said Coia gave the president a $500 golf club and other gifts, including a basketball autographed by Larry Bird.
After the hearing, Coia issued a statement that scoffed at Fino's testimony and the allegations of wrongdoing.
Some Local 210 officials claim Coia made a deal with the federal government, saving his own job by appointing an inspector general to attack union leaders in Buffalo and other cities.
Following years of allegations that Buffalo's local is controlled by the Mafia, Gow filed charges last year accusing 28 Local 210 officials of breaking union rules by belonging to the Mafia or associating with mob figures.
The group of those charged included alleged mob leaders Joseph Todaro Jr. and Leonard F. Falzone.
Sixteen of the 28 were accused of being actual members of the Buffalo Mafia family. The other 12 were accused of associating with mobsters.
The international said it wants to remove the men from the union as part of an effort to clean up the Laborers, which has about 700,000 members nationwide.
Todaro, Falzone and four others resigned, rather than fight the charges at a hearing.
A hearing was held last summer and fall for the 24 others who were charged. No decision has been issued yet on their cases, Robert Luskin, prosecutor for the inspector general's office, said Monday.
"I'm against the whole arrangement with the government in the first place," said Richard Lipsitz, a Local 210 attorney. "But since Mr. Coia is one of the authors of it, he should be subjected to the same (investigations) as anyone else."
Gabe Rosetti, a veteran laborers union official from Syracuse, has been running the Buffalo local since early 1996. His actions are closely monitored by federal prosecutors.