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February 5, 2006
President Richard Nixon with Bebe Rebozo (left) and J. Edgar Hoover (center)
at the "Florida White House". Credit: National Archives.
By the time he became president in 1969, Richard Nixon had been on the giving and receiving end of major underworld favors for more than two decades. Watergate was just the tip of the iceberg.
by Don Fulsom
During the height of the Watergate scandal, Atty. Gen. John Mitchell's wife, Martha, sounded one of the first alarms, telling a reporter, ''Nixon is involved with the Mafia. The Mafia was involved in his election.''
White House officials privately urged other reporters to treat any anti-Nixon comments by Martha as the ravings of a drunken crackpot.
Time, however, has proved Mrs. Mitchell right.
Richard Nixon's earliest campaign manager and political advisor was Murray Chotiner, a chubby lawyer who specialized in defending members of the Mafia and who enjoyed dressing like them too, in a wardrobe highlighted by monogrammed white-on-white dress shirts and silk ties with jeweled stickpins. The monograms said MMC, because – perhaps to seem more impressive – he billed himself as Murray M. Chotiner, though, in reality, he lacked a middle name.
In this cigar chomping, wheeler-dealer, Nixon had found what future Nixon aide Len Garment called ''his Machiavelli – a hardheaded exponent of the campaign philosophy that politics is war.''
When Nixon went on to the White House, both as vice president, and later as president, he took Chotiner with him as a key behind-the-scenes advisor – and for good reason. By the time he became president in 1969, thanks in large part to Murray Chotiner's contacts with such shady figures as Mafia-connected labor leader Jimmy Hoffa, New Orleans Mafia boss Carlos Marcello, and Los Angeles gangster Mickey Cohen, Richard Nixon had been on the giving and receiving end of major underworld favors for more than two decades.
In his first political foray – a successful 1946 race for Congress as a strong anti-Communist from southern California – Nixon received a $5,000 contribution from Cohen plus free office space for a ''Nixon for Congress'' headquarters in one of Mickey Cohen's buildings.
And there was more to come.
In 1950, at Chotiner's request, Cohen set up a fund-raising dinner for Nixon at the Knickerbocker Hotel in Los Angeles. The affair took in $75,000 to help Nixon go on and defeat Sen. Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom he had portrayed as a Communist sympathizer – ''pink right down to her underwear.''
''Everyone from around here that was on the pad naturally had to go,'' Cohen himself later recalled, looking back on the Knickerbocker dinner, ''… It was all gamblers from Vegas, all gambling money. There wasn't a legitimate person in the room.'' The mobster said Nixon addressed the dinner after Cohen told the crowd the exits would be closed until the whole $75,000 quota was met. They were. And it was.
Cohen has said his support of Nixon was ordered by ''the proper persons from back East,'' meaning the founders of the national Syndicate, Frank Costello and Meyer Lansky. Why would Meyer Lansky become a big fan of Richard Nixon? Senate crime investigator Walter Sheridan offered this opinion: ''If you were Meyer, who would you invest your money in? Some politician named Clams Linguini? Or a nice Protestant boy from Whittier, California?''
Lansky was considered the Mafia's financial genius. Known as ''The Little Man'' because he was barely five feet tall, Lansky developed Cuba for the Mob during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, when Havana was ''The Latin Las Vegas.'' Under its tall, swaying palms, gambling, prostitution and drug trafficking netted the U.S. Syndicate more than $100-million-a-year – even after handsome payoffs to Batista.
In the mid-'50s, Batista designated Lansky the unofficial czar of gambling in Havana. This was so Batista could stop some Mob-run casinos from using doctored games of chance to cheat tourists. A shrewd, master manipulator whose specialty was gambling, Lansky was also known among mobsters as honest. It wasn't necessary to rig the gambling tables to make boatloads of bucks. Lansky directed all casino operators to ''clean up, or get out.''
Lansky, in turn, was very generous with the Cuban dictator. As former Lansky associate Joseph Varon has said: ''I know every time Myer went to Cuba he would bring a briefcase with at least $100,000 (for Batista). So Batista welcomed him with open arms, and the two men really developed such an affection for each other. Batista really loved him. I guess I'd love him too if he gave me $100,000 every time I saw him.''
Lansky saw to it that his friends were generous to Batista too. In February 1955, Vice President Richard Nixon traveled to Havana to embrace Batista at the despot's lavish private palace, praise ''the competence and stability'' of his regime, award him a medal of honor, and compare him with Abraham Lincoln. Nixon hailed Batista's Cuba as a land that ''shares with us the same democratic ideals of peace, freedom and the dignity of man.''
When he returned to Washington, the vice president reported to the cabinet that Batista was ''a very remarkable man … older and wiser … desirous of doing a good job for Cuba rather than Batista … concerned about social progress…'' And Nixon reported that Batista had vowed to ''deal with the Commies.''
What Nixon omitted from his report was the Batista-Lansky connection, the rampant government corruption under Batista – and the extreme poverty of most Cubans. The American vice president also ignored Batista's suspension of constitutional guarantees, his dissolution of the country's political parties, and his use of the police and army to murder political opponents. Twenty thousand Cubans reportedly died at the hands of Batista's thugs.
Under Batista, Cuba was the decadent playground of the American elite. Havana was its sin city paradise – where you could gamble at luxurious casinos, bet the horses, play the lottery, and party with the some of best prostitutes, rum, cocaine, heroin and marijuana in the Western Hemisphere. Should you have been in the mood, you could also have watched ''an exhibition of sexual bestiality that would have shocked Caligula,'' according to Richard Reinhart in an article he wrote for American Heritage in 1995 entitled ''Cuba Libre.''
Cuba was only a one-hour flight away from the United States. And there were 80 tourist flights-a-week from Miami to Havana, at a cost of $40, round trip.
Three Syndicate gamblers from Cleveland — including Morris ''Moe'' Dalitz, a friend of Nixon's best buddy Bebe Rebozo — were part owners of Lansky's glittering Hotel Nacional in Havana. In fact, during the Batista regime, as recalled by Mafia hit man Angelo ''Gyp'' DeCarlo, ''The Mob had a piece of every joint down there. There wasn't one joint they didn't have a piece of.''
In a noteworthy reversal of that situation, the Cuban dictator owned part of at least one Mob-run gambling operation in the United States. Batista was partners with New Orleans godfather and future Nixon benefactor Carlos Marcello of a casino in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana called ''The Beverly Club.''
Another Rebozo associate, Tampa godfather Santos Trafficante, was the undisputed gambling king of Havana. Trafficante owned substantial interests in the San Souci – a nightclub and casino where fellow gangster Johnny Roselli had a management role.
The relationship between Nixon and Rebozo tightened in Cuba in the early '50s, according to historian Anthony Summers, when Nixon was gambling very heavily, and Bebe covered Nixon's losses – possibly as much as $50,000. Most of Nixon's gambling took place at Lansky's Hotel Nacional. Lansky rolled out the royal treatment for Nixon, who stayed in the Presidential Suite on the owner's tab.
As far back as 1951, Bebe Rebozo – the man who bailed out Nixon at the Nacional – had been involved with Lansky in illegal gambling rackets in parts of Miami, Hallandale, and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Former crime investigator Jack Clarke recently disclosed those operations, adding that Rebozo was pointed out to him, back then, as ''one of Lansky's people …When I checked the name with the Miami police, they said he was an entrepreneur and a gambler and that he was very close to Meyer.''
A bachelor, Rebozo was short, swarthy, well dressed and ingratiatingly glib. The American-born Cuban had risen from airline steward to wealthy Florida banker and land speculator.
Many Nixon biographers say Richard Danner, a former FBI agent gone bad, introduced Nixon to Rebozo in 1951. Danner was the city manager of Miami Beach when it was controlled by the Mob. Danner eventually became a top aide to Nixon's financial angel, eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. And, years later, during the final act of the Watergate scandal, Danner delivered a $100,000 under-the–table donation from Hughes to President Nixon.
Nixon and Rebozo hit it off almost immediately. Their mutual friend, Sen. George Smathers of Florida, once said: ''I don't want to say that Bebe's level of liking Nixon increased as Nixon's (political) position increased, but it had a lot to do with it.''
The two men were almost inseparable from then on. Rebozo was there to lend moral as well as financial support to his idol through Nixon's many political ups and downs. He was there in Florida in 1952 when Nixon celebrated his election to the vice presidency; Rebozo was in Los Angeles in 1960 when Nixon got word that Sen. John Kennedy had edged him out for the presidency; he comforted Nixon after his 1962 defeat for California governor; and Rebozo and Nixon drank and sunbathed together in Key Biscayne after Nixon's political dreams came true and he won the 1968 presidential election. During Nixon's White House years, rough estimates show Rebozo was at Nixon's side one out of every 10 days.
Known as ''Uncle Bebe'' to Nixon's two children, Trisha and Julie, Rebozo frequently bought the girls – and Nixon's wife Pat – expensive gifts. He purchased a house in the suburbs for Julie after she married David Eisenhower. The Saturday Evening Post, in a March 1987 article, put the price at $137,000.
Rebozo came in and out of the White House as he pleased, without being logged in by the Secret Service. Though he had no government job, Rebozo had his own private office and phone number in the executive mansion. When he travelled on Air Force One, which was frequently, Bebe donned a blue flight jacket bearing the Presidential Seal and his name. (Nixon's own flight jacket was inscribed ''The President'' – as though no one would recognize that fact by just looking at him.)
Rebozo's organized crime connections were solid. For one, he had both legal and financial ties with ''Big Al'' Polizzi, a Cleveland gangster and drug kingpin. Rebozo built an elaborate shopping center in Miami, to be leased to members of the rightwing Cuban exile community, and he let out the contracting bid to Big Al, a convicted black marketer described by the Federal Bureau of Narcotics as ''one of the most influential members of the underworld in the United States.''
Nixon and Rebozo bought Florida lots on upscale Key Biscayne, getting bargain rates from Donald Berg, a Mafia-connected Rebozo business partner. The Secret Service eventually advised Nixon to stop associating with Berg. The lender for one of Nixon's properties was Arthur Desser, who consorted with both Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa and mobster Meyer Lansky.
Nixon and Rebozo were friends of James Crosby, the chairman of a firm repeatedly linked to top mobsters, and Rebozo's Key Biscayne Bank was a suspected pipeline for Mob money skimmed from Crosby's casino in the Bahamas. By the 1960s, FBI agents keeping track of the Mafia had identified Nixon's Cuban-American pal as a ''non-member associate of organized crime figures.''
Former Mafia consigliere Bill Bonanno, the son of legendary New York godfather Joe Bonanno, asserts that Nixon ''would never have gotten anywhere'' without his old Mob allegiances. And he reports that — through Rebozo — Nixon ''did business for years with people in (Florida Mafia boss Santos) Trafficante's Family, profiting from real estate deals, arranging for casino licensing, covert funding for anti-Castro activities, and so forth.''
If friendships enabled Nixon to craft links with the Mafia, so did hatred. Teamsters union leader Jimmy Hoffa hated John and Robert Kennedy as much as Nixon did. Robert Kennedy had been trying to put Hoffa in jail since 1956, when RFK was staff counsel for a Senate probe into the Mob's influence on the labor movement. In a 1960 book, Robert Kennedy said, ''No group better fits the prototype of the old Al Capone syndicate than Jimmy Hoffa and some of his lieutenants.''
Because he shared a common enemy with Nixon, Hoffa and his two million-member union backed Vice President Nixon against Sen. John Kennedy in the 1960 election, and did so with more than just a get-out-the-vote campaign. Edward Partin, a Louisiana Teamster official and later government informant, revealed that Hoffa met with New Orleans godfather Carlos Marcello to secretly fund the Nixon campaign. Partin told Mob expert Dan Moldea: ''I was right there, listening to the conversation. Marcello had a suitcase filled with $500,000 cash which was going to Nixon ... (Another $500,000 contribution) was coming from Mob boys in New Jersey and Florida.'' Hoffa himself served as Nixon's bagman.
The Hoffa-Marcello meeting took place in New Orleans on Sept. 26, 1960, and has been verified by William Sullivan, a former top FBI official.
Nixon lost the 1960 election, and Hoffa – thanks to Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy – soon wound up in prison for jury tampering and looting the union's pension funds of almost $2 million. But the Nixon-Hoffa connection was strong enough to last at least until Dec. 23, 1971 when, as president, Nixon gave Hoffa an executive grant of clemency and sprung him from prison. The action allowed Hoffa to serve just five years of a 13-year sentence.
Hoffa evidently bought his way out. In 1996, Teamsters expert William Bastone disclosed that James P. (''Junior'') Hoffa and racketeer Allen Dorfman ''delivered $300,000 ''in a black valise'' to a Washington hotel to help secure the release of Hoffa's father'' from the pen. The name of the bagman on the receiving end of the transaction is redacted from legal documents filed in a court case. Bastone said the claim is based on ''FBI reports reflecting contacts with (former Teamster boss Jackie) Presser in 1971.''
In a recently released FBI memo confirming this, an informant details a $300,000 Mob payoff to the Nixon White House ''to guarantee the release of Jimmy Hoffa from the Federal penitentiary.''
Breaking from clemency custom, Nixon did not consult the judge who had sentenced Hoffa. Nor did he pay any mind to the U.S. Parole Board, which had unanimously voted three times in two years to reject Hoffa's appeals for release. The board had been warned by the Justice Department that Hoffa was Mob-connected. Long-time Nixon operative Chotiner eventually admitted interceding to get Hoffa paroled. ''I did it,'' he told columnist Jack Anderson in 1973, ''I make no apologies for it. And frankly I'm proud of it.''
At the time, The New York Times called the clemency a ''pivotal element in the strange love affair between the (Nixon) administration and the two-million-member truck union, ousted from the rest of the labor movement in 1957 for racketeer domination.''
As one example of President Nixon's ''strange love affair'' with the Teamsters, in a May 5, 1971 Oval Office conversation, Nixon and his chief of staff Bob Haldeman pondered a little favor they knew the union would be happy to carry out against anti-war demonstrators:
Haldeman: What (Nixon aide Charles) Colson's gonna do on it, and I suggested he do, and I think they can get a, away with this . . . do it with the Teamsters. Just ask them to dig up those, their eight thugs.
Haldeman: Just call, call, uh, what's his name.
Haldeman: Is trying to get, play our game anyway. Is just, just tell Fitzsimmons...
President: They, they've got guys who'll go in and knock their heads off.
Haldeman: Sure. Murderers!
Veteran Mafia bigwig Bill Bonanno describes Nixon's clemency for Hoffa as ''a gesture, if ever there was one, of the national power (the Mob) once enjoyed.''
President Nixon did put one restriction on Hoffa's freedom: Hoffa could never again, directly or indirectly, manage any union. This decision, too, was the result of a financial incentive – from another wing of the Mafia. The restriction was reputedly bought by a $500,000 contribution to the Nixon campaign by New Jersey Teamster leader Anthony Provenzano –''Tony Pro'' – the head of the notorious Provenzano family, which, a House panel found in 1999, had for years dominated Teamsters New Jersey Local 560.
The Provenzanos, who were linked to the Genovese crime family, used Local 560 to carry out a full range of criminal activities, including murder, extortion, loan sharking, kickbacks, hijacking, and gambling.
During the Nixon administration, pressure from Washington eased off on other Mafia leaders, too, such as Chicago godfather Sam Giancana; long-standing deportation proceedings against CIA-connected mobster Johnny Roselli were dropped. Without going into specifics, lawyers from Nixon's Justice Department explained in court that Roselli had performed ''valuable services to the national security.''
A Giancana henchman, Roselli was an important contact man in the CIA-Mafia assassination plots against Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (Roselli and Dallas gangster Jack Ruby – the killer of JFK assassination suspect Lee Harvey Oswald – are reported to have met in hotels in Miami during the months before the JFK assassination.)
Roselli was also apparently acquainted with longtime Nixon associate CIA agent E. Howard Hunt. Nixon and Hunt were secretly top planners of the assassination plots on Castro when Nixon was vice president. And later, Roselli and Hunt are reported to have been co-conspirators in the 1961 assassination-by-ambush of Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic. In the '70s, a Senate committee established that the CIA had supplied the weapons used against Trujillo. In 1976, Cygne, a Paris publication, quoted former Trujillo bodyguard L. Gonzales-Mata as saying that Roselli and Hunt arrived in the Dominican Republic in March 1961 to assist in plots against Trujillo.
Gonzalez-Mata described Hunt as ''a specialist'' with the CIA and Roselli as ''a friend of Batista'' who was operating on orders from both the CIA and the Mafia.
The Nixon administration intervened on the side of Mafia figures in at least 20 trials, mostly for the ostensible purpose of protecting CIA ''sources and methods.''
Nixon even went so far as to order the Justice Department to halt using the words ''Mafia'' and ''Cosa Nostra'' to describe organized crime. The President was roundly applauded when he boasted about his order at a private 1971 Oval Office meeting with some 40 members of the Supreme Council of the Sons of Italy. The group's Supreme Venerable, Americo Cortese, thanked Nixon for his moral leadership, declaring, ''You are our terrestrial god.''
As president, Nixon also pardoned Angelo ''Gyp'' DeCarlo, described by the FBI as a ''methodical gangland executioner.'' Supposedly terminally ill, DeCarlo was freed after serving less than two years of a 12-year sentence for extortion. Soon afterward, Newsweek reported the mobster was not too ill to be ''back at his old rackets, boasting that his connections with (singer Frank) Sinatra freed him.''
Sinatra had been ousted from JFK's social circle when the Kennedy Justice Department reported to the President that the singer had wide-ranging dealings and friendships with major mobsters. But the Nixon White House disregarded similar reports, and Sinatra went on to become fast friends with both Nixon and his corrupt vice president, Spiro Agnew.
In April 1973, at Nixon's request, Sinatra came out of retirement to sing at a White House state dinner for Italian President Giulio Andreotti. On the night of the dinner, the president compared Sinatra to the Washington Monument – ''The Top.''
In the summer of 1973, The New York Times reported that Nixon pardoned DeCarlo as a result of Sinatra's intervention with Agnew. The newspaper said the details were worked out by Agnew aide Peter Malatesta and Nixon counsel John Dean. The release reportedly followed an ''unrecorded contribution'' of $100,000 in cash and another contribution of $50,000 forwarded by Sinatra by to an unnamed Nixon campaign official.
FBI files released after Sinatra's 1998 death seem to confirm this and provide fresh details. An internal bureau memo of May 24, 1973, describes Sinatra as ''a close friend of Angelo DeCarlo of long standing.'' It says that in April 1972, DeCarlo asked singer Frankie Valli of ''My Eyes Adored You'' and ''Big Girls Don't Cry'' fame (when Valli was performing at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary) to contact Sinatra and have him intercede with Agnew for DeCarlo's release.
Eventually, the memo continues, Sinatra ''allegedly turned over $100,000 cash to (Nixon campaign finance chairman) Maurice Stans as an unrecorded contribution.'' Vice presidential aide Peter Maletesta ''allegedly contacted former Presidential Counsel John Dean and got him to make the necessary arrangements to forward the request (for a presidential pardon) to the Justice Department.'' Sinatra is said to have then made a $50,000 contribution to the president's campaign fund. And, the memo reports, ''DeCarlo's release followed.''
Frank Sinatra's Mob ties go back at least as far as Nixon's. In 1947, the singer was photographed with Lucky Luciano and other mobsters in Cuba. The photo led syndicated columnist Robert Ruark to write three columns about Sinatra and the Mafia. The first was titled ''Shame Sinatra.''
The Nixon administration's generosity toward top Mob and Teamsters officials was truly remarkable: To cite just a few other examples:
By contrast, the Kennedy administration's war on organized crime was highly effective: indictments against mobsters rose from zero to 683; and the number of defendants convicted went from zero to 619.
There's evidence Nixon later made an effort to cash in on the ''good deeds'' he had performed for his Mafia friends. Records reveal that FBI agents suspected the Nixon White House of soliciting $1 million from the Teamsters to pay hush money to the Watergate burglars.
In fact, in early 1973 – when the Watergate cover-up was coming apart at the seams – aide John Dean told the president that $1 million might be needed to keep the burglary team silent. Nixon responded, ''We could get that … you could get a million dollars. You could get it in cash, I know where it could be gotten.''
When Dean observed that money laundering ''is the type of thing Mafia people can do,'' Nixon calmly answered: ''Maybe it takes a gang to do that.''
It is suspected that most of the Watergate ''hush money'' distributed to E. Howard Hunt – who, during Watergate, was Nixon's secret chief spy – and other members of the burglary team came from Rebozo and other shadowy Nixon pals like Tony Provenzano, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, Carlos Marcello, Santos Trafficante, Meyer Lansky, and Lansky buddy John Alessio.
An ex-con, Alessio, the gambling king of San Diego, was one of the few guests at Nixon's New York hotel suite on election night, 1968. Alessio was rubbing elbows with Nixon and his family at a very special occasion – despite a mid-'60s conviction for skimming millions of dollars from San Diego's racetrack revenues.
On June 20, 1972 an anxious Richard Nixon picked up the Oval Office phone and called Anthony Provenzano's top henchman, Joseph Trerotola, a key Teamsters union power broker in his own right. Perhaps the President had some laundered cash in mind to help keep the Watergate burglars quiet about their White House ties. We will never know for sure why Tony Pro's right-hand man was one of the first people Nixon called after the burglary. Scholars who try to listen to that recently released one-minute-long conversation at the National Archives will find that the tape has been totally erased. The Archives believes the tape was probably erased by mistake by Secret Service overseers of Nixon's taping system. But an Archives spokesman acknowledges that Nixon – or someone else – might possibly have tampered with the Nixon-Trerotola tape.
A short time before phoning the mobster, Nixon had an Oval Office conversation about Watergate with his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman. This is the famous tape that contains an 18 and one-half minute erasure. The president's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, publicly took the fall for the ''gap'' in the Nixon-Haldeman tape, saying she might have accidentally made the erasure. Many historians suspect the president was the Eraser-in-Chief. Back then, the strangest explanation of all came from Nixon aide Alexander Haig, who publicly blamed a ''sinister force.'' Behind closed doors, however, Haig told Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski that the tape in question had been ''screwed with.'' At first, Nixon went along with ''the secretary did it'' story. But he later blamed one of his Watergate lawyers, Fred Buzhardt – after Buzhardt's death.
After Nixon left office in August 1974 to avoid being impeached by Congress for the illegal activities he supervised and concealed during the Watergate scandal, he spent more than a year brooding in self-exile at his walled estate in San Clemente, Calif. The very first post-resignation invitation the disgraced ex-president accepted was from his Teamsters buddies. On Oct. 9, 1975, he played golf at La Costa, a Mob-owned California resort with Teamsters chief Frank Fitzsimmons and other top union officials. Among those who attended a post-golf game party for Nixon were Provenzano, Dorfman, and the union's executive secretary, Murray (''Dusty'') Miller.
Tony Pro would later die in prison, a convicted killer. A key Mob-Teamster financial coordinator, Dorfman was later murdered gangland-style. Murray ''Dusty'' Miller was the man, records show, gangster Jack Ruby had telephoned several days before Ruby murdered Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas in November 1963.
In July 1975, Jimmy Hoffa vanished in a Detroit suburb, and his body has never been found. Some federal investigators believe he was shot to death after being lured to a reconciliation meeting with Provenzano, who never showed up. On at least two occasions, Tony Pro had threatened to kill Hoffa and kidnap his children. Investigators theorize Hoffa's body was then taken away by truck, stuffed into a fifty-gallon drum, then crushed and smelted.
Why does the Mafia sometimes dispose of the body of a hit victim? For one thing, if there's no corpse, it's harder to find and convict the killer or killers. For another, as Robert Kennedy Mob-fighter Ronald Goldfarb observes, disposal occurs when the Mob ''wants to add shame and disgrace to a murder by embarrassing the victim's family who are left with no body or funeral, no final end.''
Jimmy Hoffa was declared legally dead in 1982.
Newly released FBI documents show that, in 1978, federal investigators sought to force former President Nixon and Teamster boss Fitzsimmons to testify about events surrounding Hoffa's disappearance. The investigators concluded that such testimony offered the last, best chance of solving the Hoffa mystery. But they accused top Justice Department officials of derailing their efforts to call the two men before a Detroit grand jury.
The records also reveal that FBI agents suspected the Nixon White House of soliciting $1 million from the Teamsters to keep the Watergate burglars silent.
The disclosures are detailed in more than 2,000 pages of previously secret FBI documents — obtained by the Detroit Free Press through a Freedom of Information lawsuit. They show that Fitzsimmons had actually been a government informant on an unspecified matter from 1972 to 1974. Could Fitzsimmons's cooperation in that case have persuaded the Justice Department to turn thumbs down on the grand jury idea?
The records don't say. But they do show that the Detroit FBI office sent a number of memos to Washington stressing that Nixon and Fitzsimmons could hold the answers to the Hoffa case.
Robert Stewart, a former assistant U.S. attorney in Buffalo, N.Y., who helped lead the investigation into just how Hoffa vanished, said in another memo: ''The one individual who could prove the matter beyond a doubt is Richard Nixon.'' Stewart wasn't sure whether Nixon would cooperate, given that he had been pardoned by successor Gerald Ford for his involvement in the Watergate scandal. But the investigator added that Nixon ''must certainly appreciate that while the pardon may protect him as to whatever happened in the White House, a fresh perjury committed in a current grand jury would place him in dire jeopardy.''
In a separate memo to headquarters, Detroit FBI agents concluded, ''It would be a gross understatement to state that Fitzsimmons is the key to the solution of this case, and yet he represents the major problem encountered with the Department of Justice … Fitzsimmons should have appeared long ago before the federal grand jury in Detroit to answer questions about his association with Hoffa and any possible involvement he had in dealings leading up to Hoffa's disappearance. To date, the Department of Justice has refused to allow Fitzsimmons to testify.''
Fitzsimmons died three years later, never appearing before the grand jury. Of course, Nixon, who died in 1994, never appeared either.
Nixon first met Fitzsimmons when Jimmy Hoffa was still in jail and Fitzsimmons was in line to succeed him as Teamsters boss. The President and Fitz quickly colluded on a plan for Hoffa's release, and they started an alliance that was sealed with cold cash – huge payments involving the Mob. How much –in addition to the previously mentioned $300,000 in the black valise that Hoffa's son and Allen Dorfman allegedly delivered from Hoffa – is not known, but there are indications it was considerably more.
In 1997, a former Fitzsimmons crony named Harry Hall told historian Anthony Summers: ''Fitzsimmons figured he'd found an ally in Nixon. The Teamsters would help him financially, and Nixon ate that up … I was told they gave money to Chotiner that was to go to Nixon. I think it was close to $500,000.''
Hall added that the half-million was intended for Nixon's personal use; and that a similar amount was donated to the president's re-election campaign.
In return, a delighted Nixon privately praised the union's members to Fitzsimmons as ''stand-up guys.'' And the President did a big personal favor for the Teamsters chief – he had the Justice Department stop a probe of Fitz's son, Richard, who was accused of allowing his wife and children to use a union credit card to buy $1,500 worth of gas for their cars. One federal investigator said the case against Richard Fitzsimmons was dropped because of the ''love affair'' between Nixon and Fitz.
In a smaller favor, but one that meant a great deal to the golf-addicted Fitzsimmons, Nixon ordered aide Charles Colson to try to get Fitz into a prestigious Washington country club. Colson wrote a memo to his assistant, George Bell: ''Fitz wants Columbia because that's where (AFL-CIO union president George) Meany belongs. But if (Fitz) got into Burning Tree (where the President golfed) he could be one up on Meany, which would appeal to him – any way you have to, but do it somehow, whatever needs to be done. I suspect the President would write a letter (on Fitz's behalf) if needed.''
Colson wore horn-rimmed glasses and was a tall, heavyset, tough-talking ex-Marine who was ruthless with Nixon's enemies (he had a motto above his bar: ''Once you have them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow''). Yet Colson showed an amiable, even pliable side, when doling out favors to the President's mobbed-up labor allies.
A Jan. 19, 1972 Justice Department memo predicted that a Fitzsimmons Teamsters associate – a New York hoodlum named Daniel Gagliardi – would be indicted for extortion ''sometime next month.'' But Gagliardi knew whom to phone for help in the Nixon White House: Chuck Colson. He actually spoke with Colson's aide George Bell, who later told his boss in a memo: ''I talked to Gagliardi, who maintained complete ignorance and innocence regarding the Teamsters. (He) asked that he be gotten off the hook.''
Colson wrote back to Bell: ''Watch for this. Do all possible.''
Bell obviously carried out his assignment: Gagliardi was never indicted.
Nixon's and Colson's courting of Fitzsimmons paid off big-time at a July 17, 1972 meeting of Teamster leaders at the Mob-owned La Costa Country Club near San Diego. The union's 17-member executive board enthusiastically endorsed Nixon for re-election. Afterwards, the entire board traveled 35 miles up the California coast to the Western White House in San Clemente. There they delivered the good news to President Nixon and posed for individual pictures with him.
In October, Fitzsimmons issued a statement saying, ''The biggest weapon the American worker has to protect himself and his country is the ballot. This year we are going to use it to reject the extremism of (Democratic nominee Senator) George McGovern, and to re-elect a great American – President Richard Nixon.''
In November, Nixon scored a landslide victory over McGovern (who won only Massachusetts and the District of Columbia) and prepared to give the nation ''four more years'' of his rather peculiar brand of ''law and order.''
You can email Don Fulsom at email@example.com.
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