The Newspaper Racket
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.
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.' "
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'?"
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 Times has 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.
Since his earlier drug problems occurred when he was a union official, not an active Times driver, the company could consider the alleged incident LaChance's first violation, which requires a 30-day suspension. In fact, drivers report that LaChance was absent from the paper's loading docks for about a month, then returned to work.
Could the paper have been tougher? Lawyers for other newspaper unions, who refused to talk on the record, say the Times has fired other employees for "off-premises" behavior, saying they would "pollute the environment."
Catherine Mathis, a Times spokesperson, denied LaChance has received special treatment. "He is a member of the NMDU and the terms and conditions of his employment are governed by the contract," said Mathis. Over-the-road drivers are routinely tested for drugs, she said, but results are not disclosed. As for the alleged letter, which law enforcement sources confirm was written, Mathis said that no one at the paper had any recollection of it, adding, "We found no such letter in our files."
LaChance himself says there is no evidence of new drug use on his part. "To me it is a vicious rumor. 'Medically unqualified' could mean I have high blood pressure," he says.
Such rumors begin, of course, among his union foes. And when the talk turns to them"the haters" as LaChance calls themthe charm slips away. The eyes turn bitter, the voice booms louder, and the hands pound the table. "There are guys in this union who should kiss their union cards. They have no talents for anything; what they have is the NMDU. These haters, they say, 'This guy is running things.' Capone is dead since 1947, but they still talk about him whenever Chicago comes up. Me, it's the same thing. What I did, I did. Did I go to jail? Did I do my fuckin' time? I challenge anyone to tell me I'm involved in any way with anything illegal. I want to drive my truck and be left alone."
The loathing is mutual. LaChance's NMDU opponents describe a two-fisted force of darkness whose rule of the union has been marked by greed and intimidation.
"Guys go in groups to the general body meetings for protection," charges one member, a union shop chairman. "Doug places the intimidators around the room. Guys who carry pieces. They give you the death stare."
Union dissidents and the district attorney say that fears of violence from LaChance and his supporters are well grounded. In one episode in the mid 1990s, several drivers witnessed a fight outside the Times between LaChance and a rival tough guy named Shanty Aguiar. Aguiar had his head split open in the battle, but survived. Two other punch-ups featured LaChance's son, Glenn, currently a driver at The Wall Street Journal.
In 1988, a 61-year-old overweight delivery worker named Bernie Stern at the Times' 43rd Street docks made the mistake of arguing loudly with Doug LaChance on the plant floor. The argument erupted again the next day, this time with Glenn LaChance, who, with another man, used the butt end of a broken pool cue to beat Stern senseless. Glenn LaChance did nine months in jail for that attack. He served a separate three-month sentence for his 1993 attack on Peter Trombina, a 60-year-old driver who had openly opposed his father. Witnesses said that after exchanging words with Trombina, Glenn LaChance sucker punched the older man, breaking his glasses.
"If Glenn's guilty of anything, it's of loving his father too much," says LaChance, who insists his son took the rap for someone else in the pool cue incident.
The father and son added to their reputation by getting arrested together in 1997 for beating a man they had argued with in a bar near Doug LaChance's home in East Rockaway. The charges were dismissed after the victim dropped his complaint.
Those kinds of dustups, however, are kid stuff compared to the blood that has been spilled in the course of delivering newspapers in this town.
Newspaper deliverymen were always a tough crowd. Publishers wanted them that way. To get the edge on competitors in the rough-and-tumble circulation wars of the early 20th century, newspaper tycoons recruited the nastiest thugs they could find to steal rivals' papers and generally disrupt distribution. In New York, Daily Mirror owner Moe Annenberg hired gangsters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky. It was a good deal for the mobsters who found newspapers ripe pickings because vendors had to get them on timelate papers were worthlessand paid for them in easily laundered cash.
Formed in the early 1900s, the Newspaper and Mail Deliverers Union was equal parts Irish, Italian, and Jewish, a reflection of the city's then dominant ethnic groups. Well into the 1970s, Jewish racketeers played a major role in the union. One of them, Red Levine, was reputed to have been one of the assassins of Salvatore Maranzano, the old-school mobster who helped to found America's Cosa Nostra. Law enforcement officials, as well as longtime union members and mob associates (often the same thing in the NMDU) say that Levine cleverly allowed each of the city's five Mafia families to have a piece of the newspaper delivery action, which included bootleg sales of stolen papers as well as loan-sharking and gambling among drivers.
In more recent times, a hustling gangster named Irving Bitznicknamed "The Little Guy" for his diminutive staturealso helped keep peace among mob factions in the industry. Bitz, an NMDU member who also ran Imperial News Service, carried his own fearful legend: The feisty businessman was credited with the 1931 slaying of famed gambler Legs Diamond. In his later years, he reputedly breakfasted each morning with former Genovese crime family boss Frank "Funzi" Tieri. In 1959, he was convicted of conspiring with NMDU officials to control Long Island's newspaper and magazine deliveries. Bitz remained a powerful force in the industry up until the day in 1981 when his trussed-up body was found in a Staten Island swamp. His murder was never solved.
When Robert Morgenthau first dispatched investigators to look into the NMDU in 1990, following allegations of shakedowns and assaults, they found the descendants of Levine and Bitz conducting business as usual.
Prosecutors mustered their best evidence of corruption and violence in affidavits for its racketeering case against the union, but most were placed under seal at the defense's request. Still, many of the secret court papers have leaked out over the years and they make vivid reading, a description of an industry where each workplace was its own mini-gangland.
At the New York Post on South Street in lower Manhattan, an aging Bonanno crime family captain named Al Embarrato ruled. Known as "Al Walker," Embarrato had been selling labor peace in exchange for kickbacks along the waterfront since the 1940s. When real estate owner Peter Kalikow bought the Post in 1988, his managers noted that Embarrato, a foreman, did no visible work and naively tried to fire him. When word of the move spread, other Post foremen quickly agreed to take a salary cut so Embarrato could keep his job.
The Post's superintendent of delivery was Embarrato's nephew, an ex-cop named Bobby Perrino who used chukka sticks to collect loan-sharking debts from the workers he supervised. A secret video camera placed in Perrino's office in the fall of 1991 caught Embarrato bragging to his nephew about his crime family role. "Al Walker's the smartest guy in the whole Bonanno family, and he's the toughest fuckin' guy." It also taped Perrino and other Post employees discussing the finer points of bootleg newspaper theft and passing around loaded pistols to admire. "It's bad to carry a fuckin' piece in the car, you'll have to shoot everybody," Perrino advised drivers on one tape.
The Daily News' old plant on Pacific Street in Brooklyn was ruled by a clique of dapperly dressed drivers who flaunted their ability to avoid manual labor and spent most of their time in a nook off the mailroom called "the capuccino room." There, they read papers, played cards, and plotted out the basics of a complex scheme in which thousands of papers were stolen daily and routed to nonunion delivery outfits.
The leader of the "white-shoe mob," as other drivers called them, was Colombo crime family associate Armando "Chips" DiCostanzo, who carried a pistol under his camel hair coat. Wiretaps picked up a wholesaler speaking with awe about DiCostanzo's attack on a driver who interfered with his newspaper scams. "Chips went to work on the guy, gave him some beating," he said.
Morgenthau's investigators also interviewed union members who admitted they had purchased union cards through DiCostanzo and his associates, a move that short-circuited seniority rights for all other union members.
Investigators found the worst mob infestation among NMDU leaders at Metropolitan News Company, whose drivers delivered the Times and The Wall Street Journal in suburban areas. Union affairs at Metropolitan were directed by another Bonanno crime captain named Jimmy Galante, who exercised control through several associates, including former general foreman Leo D'Angelo. Called "the Mad Hatter" even by friends, the quick-tempered D'Angelo let people know he'd served a term for murder in the 1960s.
D'Angelo was fired after he was indicted for extortion in 1990, but he was succeeded by another Galante ally, John Nobile. In separate incidents, two union opponents of Galante's crew were beaten that year. One needed stitches in his face; the other had his knee shattered by a baseball bat. "These guys don't learn till they get hurt," Nobile was heard saying on a wiretap about one of the victims.
James Brennie, a former union business agent and executive committee member, supplied an affidavit to the D.A. detailing anonymous threats he received after he protested a Galante-sponsored sabotage campaign against a newspaper wholesaler. One of the callers "knew where my daughter lived, and read to me her address and telephone number," stated Brennie.
In another affidavit, driver Frank LaPenna described threats he received after leading opposition to LaChance's proposed contracts in 1992. A LaChance ally leaned into LaPenna's ear at a meeting and said, "Shut your fucking mouth; I'll bust your fucking head," LaPenna stated. Glenn LaChance also approached him, saying, "Dad said stop talking to the media or else." In the midst of the union dispute, LaPenna said two men in a car chased him on Long Island's Sunrise Parkway, firing two shots.
Morgenthau's labor racketeering unit pulled off embarrassing public raids in 1992 at the Post, the Daily News, Metropolitan, and other wholesalers (the Times itself was spared). The raids turned up guns, gambling records, and evidence of management complicity at the Daily News and Post in distribution schemes.
The three-year probe resulted in a score of convictions that included Galante, D'Angelo, Nobile, DiCostanzo, and Embarrato. Bobby Perrino disappeared following his indictment. In the Post delivery manager's Huntington, Long Island, home, cops found a stunning arsenal of weapons, including some with erased serial numbers, plus $105,000 in cash. Months later, America's Most Wanted broadcast Perrino's picture on television, but the show elicited no tips. Law enforcement officials and most NMDU members assume Perrino was killed, a victim of his brash talk captured on the D.A.'s bugs.
The big fish who swam away was Doug LaChance.
Morgenthau's wiretap and video surveillance revealed LaChance to be a constant player at every loading dock. In one encounter, as LaChance walked into Perrino's office at the Post, Perrino hailed the union president as "Jesus Christ Superstar!" The fear and bravado are palpable in the words of John Nobile, member of a rival mob faction, as he discusses LaChance. "I says, 'Oh, slow down, you fucking bum,' I says. 'You're only the president of this full-of-shit union. They didn't make you a tough guy yet.' "
Investigators also turned up a dope dealer, who initially told them he was doing coke deals with LaChance but then backed off his testimony, saying through his lawyer he'd been threatened. Indeed, the Post bug caught LaChance discussing the dealer with Perrino, saying, "I put the fear of God in the guy."
The D.A.'s Get LaChance team also won special access to one of the FBI's prize informants, former Luchese acting boss Alphonse D'Arco, who detailed his crime family's ties to the union leader. LaChance, D'Arco said, was considered such a lucrative asset that Luchese soldiers competed to control him. LaChance was initially handled by Luchese soldier Peter "Petey Beck" DiPalermo, but D'Arco later assigned him to Anthony "Torty" Tortorello.
D'Arco described LaChance as a "problem" associate who often cut his own side deals, extorting people on his own without permission from his Luchese masters. LaChance was so "crazy," D'Arco said, that Luchese leaders figured they would eventually have to kill him. He claimed LaChance had Luchese approval, however, to steer papers to a mob-tied, nonunion wholesaler called Pelham News Service. That's the case the D.A. eventually brought against the union president, charging him with extorting the Post to send papers to Pelham, where they alleged he had a hidden interest.
"They tried to frame me," says LaChance today. "My lawyer walked up to the jury, put a penny down on the rail, and said, 'Where is the money? There is no money in this case.' " The jury agreed, acquitting LaChance on all counts.
LaChance contemptuously dismisses D'Arco's allegations. He makes no bones about knowing Tortorello and DiPalermo ("I'm glad I had him as a friend, he never used me," says LaChance, who remains friendly with DiPalermo's nephew who drives for the Daily News). He never met D'Arco, he says. "Someone once told me he wanted to see me. I made a good decision. I didn't go."
The winning defense lawyer with a penny for the jury's thoughts was J. Kenneth O'Connor, a veteran labor attorney who remains the NMDU's general counsel. Many members were concerned about O'Connor playing the dual roles since LaChance's crimes were alleged to have hurt the union, and he'd been convicted of similar acts before.
"It's unprecedented to have the union's lawyer represent the officer in a criminal case. It creates all the wrong impressions for the union," said one labor lawyer.
O'Connor, who represents several unions, denies it. "It wasn't a conflict. The only reason LaChance was indicted was because he was performing his union duties."
The problems cited in the racketeering case against the union are "prehistoric history," says O'Connor. "We've had hotly contested elections. The union was a victim of those crimes, not a part of it."
But critics say the atmosphere within the NMDU has changed little over the years. LaChance was succeeded by one of his former business agents, Frank Sparacino. Many of those convicted in the Morgenthau probe went back to work, some elevated to management positions. An elderly Al Embarrato was even recruited as a potential partner by former Post owner Steve Hoffenberg. DiCostanzo went out on disability leave, but his allies retained influence when the Daily News moved its plant to Jersey City, where a close friend of LaChance was named circulation manager.
O'Connor argues that democracy has flourished in the union, pointing to Sparacino's victory in two contested elections. Sparacino, who earns $173,000 a year including a hefty expense account, has now told members he's retiring. Vice president Pat Lagan and executive board member Ron O'Keefe, both LaChance allies who work for the Times, have announced their candidacies, as have Charles Lemma, a Daily News driver, and Gary Drum, of the Times.
Last month, Lagan issued a leaflet under his own name, saying the union was ready to go to court. "We are going to trial. . . . I refuse to allow our union to be ruined by this unfair placement of a Czar over us."
Such sentiments are popular. "It's very unfair to blame my union on the actions of a few," says Paddy McDonald, a driver for 29 years. "I had no control over what LaChance was doing."
None of the NMDU's options appear enviable. Defending the case will be expensive, as will having a monitor. It has sunk from 3000 members in the 1990s to half that number today. Its current disclosure report shows a $400,000 deficit. In its most recent bargaining with the Times and the Daily News, negotiators had to ask publishers to pick up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees as part of their contract settlements. There's also dissent in its ranks in New Jersey, where Newark Star-Ledger drivers, citing poor union contracts and uncertainty over the racketeering case, are seeking to bolt the NMDU and join the Teamsters. Daily News drivers briefly considered the same thing last year.
None of those problems involve him, LaChance says.
"I drive my truck. What other job have I ever had besides waxing the warden's floor? Being a member of the NMDU is the best thing that ever happened to me. I love this business. It's been good to me. Whether I've been good to it, I'll let history decide."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.