Feature Articles

June, 2010
Mobsters Taking The Fifth

      By Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus

Mike La Sorte is a professor emeritus (SUNY) and writes extensively on a variety of subjects.

* * *

     The Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (along with the other first ten) was adopted and came into effect on December 15, 1791. It reads: "No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any Criminal case to be a witness against himself [italics mine], nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation."

     Senator John L. McClellan of Arkansas chaired the Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field (the so-called Rackets Committee) and the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Beginning in January of 1957, the congressional hearings extended into the 1960s. The Rackets Committee focused on "investigations of crime, improper activities, and corruption on a national scale."

     Some of the men called before the Committee were to a degree cooperative. Others suffered from a "loss of memory," talked gibberish or refused outright to answer any questions put to them, however mundane, making use of their rights to remain silent under the Fifth Amendment.

     Dave Beck, then president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, claimed he did not know the whereabouts of his son:
      "We are trying to locate Mr. Dave Beck, Jr. Would you know him? You are ordered and directed to answer the question." Beck responds: "I decline to answer on the grounds it might open up avenues of questions that would tend to incriminate me." (Beck and his son were later tried and convicted of larceny, and Beck was convicted of filing fraudulent income-tax returns for a Teamster subsidiary.)

     Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa had no use for the Committee and enjoyed dissembling and showing utter disrespect toward both the questions and the Committee members. At one point in the proceedings Hoffa remarked, with a "cynical grin," that "�to the best of my recollection I have no disremembrance of discussing with Scott any such question." Senator Ives recovered quickly from the malapropism and came back with his own: "I am constrained to point out that Mr. Hoffa has the most convenient forgettery of anybody I have ever seen. You have not taken the Fifth, but you are doing a marveling job crawling around it." (The witnesses were reminded to "show respect for your government," but the admonishment was often in vain.) 

     Then there were characters like the Teamsters "burly strong-arm" man Barney Baker, who said that with his big mouth he liked to brag about himself. Whatever crimes he had committed were likely to be greatly exaggerated.  

     There was the matter of Anthony Hintz, an "honest hiring boss of longshoremen," who was gunned down in front of his home. The suspected killer was cockeyed Dunn. 

     The Committee's chief counsel Robert Kennedy (younger brother of John F. Kennedy, later U.S. president) asked Baker, "Where is Mr. Dunn now?"  Baker: "He met his Maker." "How did he do that?" Baker: "I believe though electrocution in the city of New York of the State of New York." 

     James R. Hoffa, the son of a coal prospector, came up the hard way. He was an authentic tough guy who showed no fear and would not back down from any quarrel. He held a special dislike for Robert Kennedy, whom he considered to be just another arrogant spoiled kid from an American aristocratic family undeserving of his respect. Being the wise guy he was Hoffa enjoyed testing Kennedy's patience and jousting with him. Their exchanges were full of tension, with Hoffa deliberately referring to the chief counsel by the familiar "Bob" or "Bobby," with a self-confident hail-fellow-well-met sarcastic attitude. Later Hoffa refused to acknowledge the chief counsel entirely as a person.

     Kennedy Asked Hoffa: "Since you have been with the Teamsters Union, you have been arrested a number of times, have you? How many?" Hoffa: "Well, I don't know, Bob. I haven't counted them up. I think maybe about seventeen times I have been picked up, took into custody of the police. In many instances these were dismissed�but in three of those times I received convictions."

     Anthony "Ducks" Corallo, then vice-president of Local 239 of the Teamsters, was an "infamous mobster," with a string of arrests. Kennedy noted that Tony Ducks was a close friend of mobster Johnny Dioguardi. He asked Hoffa why he remained with the Teamsters: "Aren't you frightened of these people." Hoffa came back quickly with: "I am not frightened of anybody. And I am not controlled by gangsters." As if to demonstrate, of the two witnesses who testified against the Hoffa's Teamsters, Hoffa was heard remarking, "The S.O.B., I'll break his back;" "I will break both your arms and legs."

     Thomas Lucchese was well-known to the police. His colorful alias, "Three-Finger Brown," was given to him by a police officer, in 1920, who identified his prisoner, a man with a missing finger, by the name of the Chicago Cubs' famed pitcher of that era, Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown. Lucchese took the Fifth when asked if he knew such mob stalwarts as Frankie Carbo, Abe Chait, Vito Genovese, and others. As one example, when he was asked whether he was an acquaintance of Lucky Luciano, he replied, "I decline to answer under the Fifth Amendment."  When asked if he was a member of the Mafia (a question asked often during the proceedings) he answered, "No, sir."


     As to the old pro Vito Genovese, a top-ranked mob leader of his generation, his lips remained sealed. "Mr. Genovese, are you a citizen of the United States?"
 Reply: "I respectfully decline to answer on the ground that my answer may tend to incriminate me." Question: "Have you ever done anything that wouldn't incriminate you?" (Same response) "Did you ever do any decent thing in your life?" (Same response)

     Mike Miranda, Lieutenant to Genovese:
"Mr. Miranda, do you recognize yourself in this photograph?"
"I got no glass. I don't see."
"Where are your reading glasses?"
"I got none. They are at home."

     Joseph Profaci, another old pro, slipped easily from proper English (in private) to "I no speak or hear too good the English."

     "Mr. Profaci, in our private conversation yesterday in the office your English was proper. What has happened in the last twenty-four hours? Your accent has gotten so bad today." Response: "I don't catch your words right."

     After three years of "arduous labor" the Rackets Committee hearings generated 270 days of public hearings, 1526 witnesses, and 46,150 pages in the typewritten record. There were 343 witnesses who took the Fifth Amendment, roughly one witness out of five.

     What, in the end, did the Select Committee hearings reveal? According to Senator McClellan's summing there were significant strides taken. He concluded (in part) that "Mounting crime and corruption are insidiously gnawing at the vitality and strength of our republic. These forces pose a tremendous threat to our democratic institutions and to our economic freedom and security�. The mockery which criminals make of the law is apparent�.The hearings have had good results in legislation designed to curtail the most flagrant abuses of organized gambling activities�. [The 1957 Apalachin mob conclave made clear that] we have in this country a criminal syndicate that is obviously tightly organized into a secret brotherhood, which none of its members dare to betray, and which has insinuated its tentacles into business and labor and public life at high levels. Prior to Apalachin there had always been a skeptical audience for tales of syndication."

     In retrospect, the hearings can be said to have done little to confirm McClelland's conclusion of a massive national criminal conspiracy, a conclusion that had been already assumed previously with the revelations coming out of the 1957 Apalachin mob get-together. The questions asked by the Committee members often showed little comprehension of the subject matter. Questions of little note and sometimes naive ("Are you a member of the mafia?") were asked from which little could be gained. The Committee failed to gather actionable material that could be used to form an in-depth portrait, and failed to receive responses of substance. As a consequence little light was shed on the phenomenon of organized crime in all of its manifestations. In fact, gambling was to a great extent the focus. In particular, the Hearings produced a piddling of substantive material to support the contention of a nationwide crime conspiracy authored almost wholly by criminals of Italian extraction.




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