By Alex Distefano
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By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
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By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Five nights a week, one of America's best-paid truck drivers climbs into an 18-wheel tractor trailer to deliver the world's most famous newspaper.
Doug LaChance is 59 years old, and aside from two terms as president of his union and two stretches in federal prison, he has worked steadily for The New York Times for 41 years.
He has a lifetime job guarantee there that pays him upwards of $200,000 a year, thanks to a 1992 contract that he personally negotiated with publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. Some Times employees say, more than half jokingly, that Doug LaChance is the second most powerful man at the nation's Newspaper of Record.
And although LaChance has been out of union office since 1993, many members and industry insiders still consider him the major power in the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union, the ornery, rascal-filled organization that represents delivery workers at the Times, the Daily News, the Post, The Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Law enforcement officials heartily agree, claiming that LaChance wields his influence on behalf of the Luchese crime family. A top Mafia informant told lawmen that LaChance was a valuable ally although so uncontrollable that the mob considered killing him.
"After I win the Nobel Prize and am made a Knight of Malta, the first sentence in my obituary will still be 'convicted labor racketeer.'"
He is a big man, six feet two, with wary brown eyes set in a long face capped by steel-gray hair. He is a garrulous talker with a roguish charm that he turns on union members and employers alike. His conversation is a flow of anecdotes about publishers, politicians, and gangsters, interspersed with quotes from Tin Pan Alley tunes, comments about stories in the day's papers, and a well-practiced, self-deprecating humor.
"After I win the Nobel Prize and am made a Knight of Malta, the first sentence in my obituary will still be 'convicted labor racketeer,' " he is fond of saying.
The nonstop patter pauses only when he's asked about a still pending eight-year-old criminal racketeering case brought by Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau against the 1600-member NMDU. The case alleges that the union is under mob control and needs to be put under court-ordered receivership. Thrown out of court by one judge, the case was reinstated in 1999. Prosecutors long ago put a formal settlement offer on the table, in which the union would accept an outside monitor to watchdog its affairs and screen members. The union's lawyers and current officials, all LaChance allies, have rejected that solution as expensive and unnecessary. The mob charges, they insist, are ancient history.
The long-independent union recently tried to sidestep the racketeering case by affiliating with the United Food and Commercial Workers, a far larger union that's part of the AFL-CIO. The UFCW, it was hoped, could persuade the D.A. it would monitor the drivers. The food workers balked, however, after the D.A. told them they would have to place the NMDU under trusteeship. With negotiations stalled, the case has been marked down for trial, possibly as early as this month.
If the charges do reach a courtroom, it will be the first time much of the newspaper industry's dirtiest linen has been aired. City dailies that rely on mob tales for their bread and butter, papers that happily indulge readers with the tiniest details of John Gotti's gangster life, have always been reluctant to shine a light on the tangled nest of mob corruption that is the city's newspaper delivery business. The Times, the Post, and the Daily News published just highlights of the 1990-1993 Morgenthau investigation. Only New York Newsday, whose drivers are represented by another union, gave in-depth coverage. The reluctance is understandable. The sinister figures who haunt the drivers' union are uncomfortably close to home, many of them cultivated and tolerated by publishers themselves. A bright light on the NMDU would be unflattering to management as well.
Exhibit one in the prosecution's evidence will be the witty and charismatic Doug LaChanceancient history and all.
The Times driver receives questions about those matters with a streetwise shrug, raised eyebrows, and a dismissive thrust of his lower lip.
"I drive a truck every night," he says. "I got a lifetime job guarantee and I'm not about to quit. I'm not involved in any criminal activity and I'm not running for any union office."
It's the demeanor and swagger that Robert De Niro tries to affect in his wiseguy roles. LaChance came by it naturally. The son of a cop, he was raised in Richmond Hill, Queens. He grew up around gangsters, he says, and has known and worked around them all his life. "My first job. I was a kid in 1955 at the old World Telegram and Sun and I am helping haul papers up to Fulton Street, and there's [legendary former mob boss] Joe 'Socks' Lanza. He says, 'Kid, keep your eyes open.' "
He did. LaChance became a union business agent in 1969 and was elected president in 1976. When he wasn't consulting with publishers like Rupert Murdoch, he was investing his earnings in a gracious old ocean-side hotel he operated in East Hampton. The Sea Spray Inn, with its Cinzano umbrellas overlooking the Atlantic, served as a movie set for William Holden and Faye Dunaway's seaside tryst in Network. "I knew I was a star the night John and Yoko walked in," says LaChance. The hotel later burned under suspicious circumstances. "The police asked if I had enemies. I said, 'Try the Manhattan phone book.' "