One morning several months ago, Ed Ott arrived at work to find people toiling away, which is a good thing normally, except that these busy bees were F.B.I. agents in the midst of raiding the West 15th Street offices of the New York City Central Labor Council.
Who are you? one of them asked.
Ed Ott, he answered. The council’s director of public policy.
The agent went off to study a list of names, then came back to say: All right, you’re not under investigation, but we’d like to talk to you. How well do you know Brian M. McLaughlin — as in the magnetic president of the Central Labor Council, whose office a few steps away was at the moment being swept clean.
He’s not a friend, Mr. Ott explained, so much as a longtime colleague in the labor movement. To which the agent answered: That’s not what I mean. What do you know about his various schemes, frauds and embezzlements?
Mr. Ott did not hesitate to answer: I would be very surprised.
After all, this was Brian McLaughlin they were talking about, hero of the working stiff. A block of a man at 6-foot-4, with handsome features that had women whispering, he owned whatever room he walked into, with that teasing humor, and that way of sounding heartfelt about the rights of workers. One of us, people thought.
Mr. McLaughlin had a background made for labor hagiography. The grandson of Irish immigrants, he followed his father into the electricians’ union and was personally groomed for leadership by Harry Van Arsdale Jr., a labor council president who, upon his death in 1986, was described this way by longtime New York Times labor writer A. H. Raskin:
“He championed the emptiers of bedpans and pushers of carts in the city’s hospitals, the grooms and stablehands at Aqueduct and Belmont, the taxi drivers in bondage to loan sharks, the tens of thousands of exploited women in a new plague of sweatshops engulfing the five boroughs.”
“Not for him were the chauffeured Cadillacs that have increasingly become a badge of union prestige and power.”
Mr. Van Arsdale’s protégé worked his way up: Democratic district leader in Queens, assemblyman, and, in 1995, labor council president. If his air of the reformer was just that, and if he treated his legislative job as a sinecure, he still had a gift for bringing people together and for making the labor council relevant and influential.
In the months after that unnerving raid, the city’s labor world wondered what to think. This was Brian, after all; he’s making $263,000 a year, after all. Most assumed, or hoped, that the matter was explainable; the misuse of a credit card, say.
THE wait ended this week, when Mr. McLaughlin, 54, was charged with just about every racketeering crime short of stealing milk money from schoolchildren, Mr. Ott and others initially adopted an innocent-until-proven-guilty posture. Then they went home to read the 186-page indictment.
The indictment portrays a plundering labor leader with a perverse interpretation of an old union song’s last line: “Take it easy, but take it.” It alleges that he not only illegally obtained $2.2 million from contractors, taxpayers and labor unions over the last decade with an almost rapacious glee, but also consistently treated his union brothers and sisters as serfs.
According to the indictment, he used their dues to pay for his country club membership and other personal expenses. It also charges that he had them pick up his garbage, collect his shoes at a shoe-shine shop, shovel his snow, hang his Christmas lights and catch rodents in his basement when there appeared to be a much larger one upstairs — one who used stolen money to buy his wife a Mercedes-Benz worth $80,000, which is the combined salaries for four entry-level clerks in Civil Service.
Mr. McLaughlin’s downfall is a sorrow to the Irish, who embraced him as a son of Erin; a sorrow to constituents, who voted for him in trust; and, most of all, a sorrow to the idealists of labor, who feel betrayed.
Yesterday, in the office he once occupied, there now sat interim President Ed Ott, a little older and a lot shorter than Mr. McLaughlin. Thirty years in the labor movement, and he prides himself on paying for his lunches with his own money. His desk faces the same painting of Harry Van Arsdale that once looked down upon a protégé named Brian.
The nickels and dimes of workers, the angry new president kept saying. The nickels and dimes of workers.