Rift Between Top ILA Officials Could Strengthen Feds’ Case

Bad blood always has run through the top echelons of the International Longshoremen’s Association. But the latest power struggle could wind up sinking its entire leadership. Last summer federal prosecutors filed a civil RICO suit in Brooklyn, N.Y. seeking to oust the longtime leadership of the union, which represents roughly 50,000 workers at three dozen ports along the Atlantic Coast and the Great Lakes. Taking center stage are ILA President John Bowers, Sr., and Vice President Arthur Coffey. They, several other union officials, and certain persons with ties to the Genovese and Gambino crime families are facing a lifetime ban on participating in the affairs of the union or any of its pension, benefit and welfare funds. For some reason, Bowers hasn’t been making himself accessible to Coffey as of late. “He’s staying away from me like I’m poison,” Coffey said of Bowers. “No one takes my phone calls anymore…(I)’ve been in the union for over 35 years, and I’ve never been treated like this.” 


Coffey, 63, hasn’t been able to get his former pals to pay the bulk of his legal expenses from a separate criminal case decided last fall. Coffey, along with union official Harold Daggett and Genovese family captain Lawrence Ricci, were acquitted on various corruption charges, with Ricci “disappearing” during the course of the trial (he later would turn up dead in the trunk of a car parked outside a New Jersey diner). Coffey and his lawyer, Gerald J. McMahon, subsequently were invited to a victory celebration in Lower Manhattan – and then abruptly turned away. Not long after that McMahon wrote trial judge I. Leo Glasser, also the presiding judge in the civil case, accusing Bowers, 83, of treating the union as his “personal piggy bank.” McMahon noted Bowers and his son, John Bowers, Jr., last year received salaries of $417,881 and $300,866, respectively. What’s more, the elder Bowers collected from the union more than $100,000 in legal fees, and allegedly controlled the selection of two law firms that the union had paid more than $2 million in 2005.        


The rift isn’t helping the union’s chances for victory, notes Herman Benson, a labor movement reformer and founder of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Association for Union Democracy. “It’s an odd thing here,” he said. “Coffey, in attacking Bowers and demanding his legal fees, it seems to me, is bolstering the government’s RICO suit against the international.” McMahon traces the rift to the criminal trial, when he sought unsuccessfully to get Bowers to testify on behalf of Coffey, with immunity from prosecution. Bowers was unhappy over several comments McMahon made at the trial, especially since Coffey had revealed himself to be an ineffective front man for the Genovese mob. Testimony showed the real power lay in the hands of two other family members: George Barone and Douglas Rago, the latter also Coffey’s uncle. 

While neither Coffey nor McMahon are alleging Bowers stole funds, they are pointing to the union’s declining membership and balance sheets as evidence it’s time for Bowers and his allies to step down. ILA rank and file declined to 52,000 during 2005, a drop of 7,000, while its treasury dropped to $43.7 million from $51.1 million. Union lawyer Howard Goldstein, in his own letter to Judge Glasser, called McMahon’s allegations “grossly misleading at best.” The decision over whether to reimburse Coffey’s legal fees, he insisted, was solely at the union’s discretion. Coffey, for his part, knows he’s not going to get any cooperation from Bowers, but he wants his legal fees covered anyway. He remarked: “I don’t have $50 million in a treasury someplace at home I can stand waiting for this kind of money, which has caused me a tax situation.” (New York Times, 6/9/06).