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Other fires were smoldering as well. Federal agents shadowed LaChance wherever he went. "I saw them checking my coat labels when I went into restaurants. They were outside my house on Christmas Eve." That was when, as he puts it, "the plane crashed." In February 1980, LaChance was indicted on 136 counts of extortion, racketeering, and income-tax evasion for using his union post to shake down wholesale newspaper distributors. LaChance, it was alleged, had gotten a cut from the distribution of interim papers published during the 88-day newspaper strike in 1978 and had tried to keep the strike going in order to keep the payoffs flowing.
Today, LaChance doesn't quarrel with his conviction, but complains that the 12-year sentence he received was due to the newspaper industry's clout.
If he hadn't known mobsters well enough before, he was introduced to them in even closer quarters by the U.S. government, which sent him to a gangster retirement home at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury, Connecticut. There, he joined an informal dining and social club dubbed "Miami Beach." It had its own rules, its own supply of special food. Members included Colombo crime family boss Carmine Persico ("A tough guy's tough guy," says LaChance admiringly); Jimmy Burke, mastermind of the Lufthansa airlines theft; Mike Clemente, the former underworld czar of Manhattan's waterfront; and Jimmy Napoli, the Genovese crime family's gentlemanly comptroller.
But those are yesterday's stories. The current claims against him are denied with a mix of disdain and pride.
Other than occasional speeches at meetings, he has no ongoing control over his union, he says. "Do I get up in a meeting once in a while and say what I think? Yes. I'm a member. It's my right. And I happen to be a good talker."
Even his union foes attest to his eloquence. "I've been to meetings where 1500 guys wanted to kill him, and by the time he got done talking they were ready to kill for him," says one.
As for mob ties, they are only of the fleeting, head-nodding variety. "I know him since I was a kid, we grew up together. He was in jail with me," he says of a now deceased Luchese captain from whom he is alleged to have taken orders. "I seen him at a restaurant. 'Hey, howyadoin'?' What am I supposed to say? 'Go fuck yourself'?"
"I'm the only gangster I know who drives a truck every day. What family am I with? The Sulzberger family. For 40 years."
At the Times, he insists, he is simply a veteran employee with an insider's knowledge of its operations and the same love-hate relationship with his employer as any longtime worker. He has the scars to show for it. On a snowy night in 1985, shortly after he was paroled, his trailer skidded off a bridge on I-95 in Groton, Connecticut. The truck fell 60 feet with LaChance inside. His seatbelt saved his life but he lost his spleen.
"The Times can't decide if I'm a gangster or a labor statesman," says LaChance. "Every employer gets the employees it deserves. That's why the Timeshas me. We deserve each other. I'm the only gangster I know who drives a truck every day. What family am I with? The Sulzberger family. For 40 years."
LaChance's critics say he's had a cozy relationship with the paper ever since he got out of jail the first time. They point to a letter allegedly written by a Times vice president to federal officials citing LaChance's good employment record. They also cite LaChance's role in negotiating crucial contracts with the paper in the early '90s. The deals gave the Times the operating leeway it sought and assured highly paid, permanent jobs for LaChance and others, while whittling away at driver routes and positions. Drivers opposed to the contracts launched a bitter wildcat strike in 1992 and denounced LaChance as Sulzberger's puppet.
"That contract was 100 percent for the Times," says Frank LaPenna, a driver and union representative at a Times-owned distributor on Long Island. "It would've killed us. The guy was destroying our union. Selling our jobs."
The critics also question the paper's response to LaChance's past drug use and crimes. In 1992, just months after completing the Times negotiations, LaChance tested positive for cocaine four times. LaChance's parole was revoked and he was returned to prison, serving an additional eight months.
Asked about the episode, LaChance shrugs. "I found a way to light myself up. I was supposed to get off [of parole] that December. I blew the date. It was hard. I had to tell my kids I had come up dirty on a test. You know what that's like?"
LaChance relinquished his union position and upon his release in June 1993, he swore off his bad old ways and went back to driving his trailer load to Connecticut. Last August, however, the Times' Fleet Safety Office circulated an official memo listing LaChance as "medically unqualified to drive" without citing specifics. Law enforcement and industry sources said that the memo was issued after LaChance again turned up positive in another random drug test. The sources said that after failing the test, LaChance wisely went straight to his parole officer to report it and voluntarily put himself in rehab.