I just found out that Frank Coccia died at the age of 84 on Christmas day.
In a year when it seems that way too many people, celebrities and regular folks, were taken from us, I won't be shedding any tears for Mr. Coccia.
It was August 4, 1980, when I began working as an Inventory Management Specialist (or item manager) in the Directorate of Clothing and Textiles (or C&T) at the Defense Personnel Support Center (DPSC) in South Philadelphia. I had a lot to learn, not only how to perform my duties, but also about the corporate structure and internal politics.
My duties were pretty straightforward; our task was to decide when to purchase the various garments and associated textiles used by the five branches of the military services. I was assigned to the Navy section (part of Branch 1), so I managed Navy items, or I did once I had learned the ropes from people like Joe Duca and Hampden Moon.
Those early days are a blur, but I distinctly remember hearing the name Frank Kohsha bandied about, partly in fear and partly in awe, though I wasn't clear on who he was. I also recall seeing a lot of documents and memos that were signed by the Deputy Director, Frank Coccia. Eventually I figured out that they were one and the same person and that the name that was spelled Coccia was pronounced Kohsha.
Mr. Coccia, nearly everyone called him Mr. Coccia, ran a tight ship, and he used fear to keep subordinates in line. Item managers in particular feared his wrath because we were the ones who had to brief him directly whenever it was time to buy items where the contract value was over a certain dollar threshold; we were also the ones to brief him whenever there were problems with an item, regardless of the reason for the problem.
I realized pretty early on that Frank Coccia knew what he was doing. As our Branch Chief, Col. Joe Lavin, put it: “Frank Coccia is probably the most competent man I know.” I also realized he enjoyed his fearsome reputation, as he tended to be toughest on those who radiated fear.
Once I started managing items that required briefing him, I was always prepared, and he practically never gave me a hard time, although he would often toss out a question from left field. Like the time I briefed him on the black Navy shirts, several of which sizes were on backorder, and he asked me about the sizes that weren't on backorder. After that briefing Maggie Rees, our Acting Deputy Branch Chief at the time, couldn't get over that I was able to field those questions.
Anyway I believe it was sometime in 1984 that Coccia got a bug up his ass about one of our contractors, Gulf Apparel. We weren't sure why (the stated reason was that they were behind on another contract, although that was a pretty common occurrence), but Coccia did not want to award the latest contract to Gulf, even though they were the low bidder.
Since it was my item, I had to lead the way in devising a reason for not awarding the contract to Gulf. I recall one of those meetings where someone asked in frustration why we weren't awarding to Gulf, and I replied, “Because Frank doesn't want to.” There was a silence around the table; I'm not sure if it was because I had stated the reason so bluntly or because I, a lowly item manager, had referred to Mr. Coccia as Frank. All eyes turned to Bill Hoban, the most senior person at the table, who nodded and said, “That’s basically it.”
Somehow we managed to find a reason, and we awarded the contract to another company, though I no longer recall the justification or the contractor.
There are a couple other stories that I could tell about Frank Coccia (like the time he overrode John McAndrews’ selection for a promotion and, uh, suggested that he should pick, well, me, instead), and maybe I will someday.
But I did eventually leave C&T in 1986 to take a position involving personal computers in the Directorate of Subsistence.
I was there when the word came out in 1987 that Frank Coccia was one of nine people charged in connection with a kickback scheme involving contracts to supply military clothing. One of the companies involved was, you guessed it, Gulf Apparel.
About a year later Coccia pleaded guilty to taking at least $331,000 in bribes from contractors. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, fined $50,000, and forfeited the $331,000.
I've heard it said, and I think it's true, that competent but corrupt managers are better than incompetent but honest managers. Frank Coccia might provide one data point in support of that thesis.