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Bobby Kennedy Versus Jimmy Hoffa
Read by Joe Barrett
By James Neff
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From 1957 to 1964, Robert Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa channeled nearly all of their considerable powers into destroying each other. Kennedy’s battle with Hoffa burst into the public consciousness with the 1957 Senate Rackets Committee hearings and intensified when his brother named him attorney general in 1961. RFK put together a “Get Hoffa” squad within the Justice Department, devoted to destroying one man. But Hoffa, with nearly unlimited Teamster funds, was not about to roll over.
Drawing upon a treasure trove of previously secret and undisclosed documents, James Neff has crafted a brilliant, heart-pounding epic of crime and punishment, a saga of venom and relentlessness and two men willing to do anything to demolish each other.
Table of Contents
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SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT ON APRIL 5, 1956, New York Daily Mirror labor columnist Victor Riesel, his twenty-three-year-old secretary, and two frightened union members settled into the broadcast booth of a radio station in midtown Manhattan. Riesel, a short, peppery, dark-haired man with a pencil-thin mustache, was on a mission. For years he had used his Inside Labor column to attack racketeering figures who had wormed their way into union leadership. Now, at age forty-one, he hosted a popular talk-radio show, and his syndicated column ran in nearly two hundred newspapers. Riesel was at the height of his influence.
One week earlier, federal prosecutors in New York City had launched a grand jury investigation into suspected mob infiltration of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and other local unions. Riesel made no secret that he was going to appear before the grand jury and share all he knew about the "manicured mobsters" and "muscle men" who belonged to the "crime syndicate."
The two union members accompanying Riesel to the WMCA studio had been beaten up for complaining about a father-son team of hoodlums who ran their local union. Riesel let the two dissidents spill their grievances on air and praised their courage. "It's a tough mob, and it's tied in with the toughest mobs in New York and Chicago," he told his audience.1
When the radio show ended, at 2:00 a.m., Riesel and his secretary, Betty Nevins, accompanied the two men to the street, where they nervously checked under their car's hood to see if a bomb had been hidden there while they were on the air. After seeing them drive off safely, Riesel and Nevins rode in her car to Lindy's, the all-night Broadway restaurant made famous by writer Damon Runyon as a hangout for theater swells, gangsters, and cops. Following them to Lindy's but hiding in the shadows, staying well back, was a young man carrying a small glass jar of concentrated sulfuric acid.
Riesel got his start in the world of labor as a young boy attending union meetings with his father, Nathan, who founded an embroiderers' local of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union. In the 1920s, his father fought to try to keep the union's leadership free of Communists and racketeers. For his troubles, Nathan was beaten up by union goons—once, in 1942, so viciously that despite a series of operations he ended up disabled for life.
Victor Riesel had worked in a series of dreary jobs—hat-maker, embroiderer, mill worker—while taking industrial-relations classes at night at Manhattan's City College. Like many, Riesel felt that being a union officer was a moral calling; it wasn't simply a way to make a living or pursue power. He believed unions were supposed to be watchdogs that protected workers against rapacious businessmen and shady politicians—the means to guarantee everyday citizens decent wages, safety at work, and personal pride. With a college degree, fierce ambition, and a slangy prose style, he started out at the tiny but influential New Leader, the liberal anticommunist weekly. In 1942, he landed as labor editor at the New York Post, where he wrote Inside Labor several days a week. Eight years later, he and his column moved to the Hearst tabloid the New York Daily Mirror.
Riesel gained influence in the 1940s as an anticommunist crusader during the Red scare, using his column as a seal of approval for public figures and labor leaders who wanted to whitewash their liberal or leftist pasts. He let labor leaders—Ronald Reagan, president of the Screen Actors Guild, for example—write guest columns in which they apologized for their youthful but "mistaken" ideology. (Among the conservative-leaning leadership of the Screen Actors Guild, Riesel's imprimatur boosted Reagan's career.)
By the spring of 1956, even though his column appeared in 193 newspapers, Riesel did not wield the influence of such columnists as Walter Lippmann or Joseph Alsop. But within the labor movement, Riesel's views carried heft—and could even put a spark into a New York City federal grand jury.
"My father taught me a hatred of goons," he would later say. "The first chance I got, I went after them.… The mob placed a 'terror tax' on society, raising the price on everything from clothing to artichokes—anything that could be delivered."2 In city after city, Riesel had seen investigations into labor racketeering come and go, launched in the wake of a public outrage then slowly stymied by frightened witnesses, public apathy, and the shifting political fortunes of striving prosecutors. But he was excited about this latest investigation in his backyard.
The United States attorney for the southern district of New York, Paul Williams, had empaneled a grand jury and targeted seven newly chartered Teamsters locals that were run by men sharing a distinguished pedigree: all were associates of prosperous underworld kingpin John "Johnny Dio" Dioguardi. And all had lengthy rap sheets—bookmaking, robbery, drug dealing, murder, assault, rape. These seven locals were a subspecies of labor unions known as paper locals, essentially shell unions that existed on paper—with a bona fide charter from the international union—but didn't have members, only officers with votes to cast. Perhaps foolishly, Riesel revealed that he was going to be the grand jury's star witness. The investigation, he wrote in his column, could end up bringing down "the Mr. Bigs of the American crime syndicate."
What Riesel and others didn't yet know was that it was Jimmy Hoffa, an ambitious but as yet little-known Teamsters vice president from Detroit, who had quietly connived to get the international union to provide the charters to his good friend Dio.
For Hoffa to become president of the Teamsters, as he hoped, he would need the support of the influential New York joint council. Hoffa had a plan to put one of his loyalists, John O'Rourke, in control of the association of fifty-six New York–area Teamsters locals, with a total of 125,000 members. Each of these fifty-six locals could cast up to seven votes, one from each officer, and the forty-nine votes of the seven newly chartered Dio locals would be enough to swing the top job to Hoffa's man.
As for Dio (said to be the inspiration for the mobbed-up labor boss Johnny Friendly in the blockbuster 1954 film On the Waterfront), he and his crew would make a fortune from the charters. As newly minted labor officials, they could threaten to unionize a company unless they were given bribes. Or if an honest union was trying to unionize a particular company, the head of the company might pay off Dio to sign its employees to a sweetheart deal—lower wages and fewer benefits. Either way, workers were exploited. Among Dio's crime associates were James "Jimmy Doyle" Plumeri, Anthony "Tony Ducks" Corallo, and Thomas "Three-Finger Brown" Lucchese, all made members of the Mafia.
It was easy to spot Riesel, five foot four, wearing a fedora, and his young secretary, tall, with shoulder-length blond hair. After dinner, they walked to her car, parked on the corner of 51st and Broadway. There, a thin, dark-haired young man stepped out of the shadows near the Mark Hellinger Theatre and walked up to them. He wore light-colored trousers and a tan jacket and said not a word.
Thinking the man wanted a handout, Riesel slipped his hand into his pocket, feeling for a quarter. At that moment, the man, swinging underhand, emptied the small jar of acid in Riesel's face.
"My gosh! My gosh!" Riesel cried, his hands clawing his skin. Nevins pulled him back into Lindy's to try to get help.
Meanwhile, the assailant walked off, then began running up an alley. Blocks away, he caught the attention of a policeman who told him to stop.
He had just been robbed, the man told the policeman, and he pointed up the street to an imaginary assailant. When the officer took off in that direction, the man who destroyed Riesel's eyes slipped away.
Riesel was driven to nearby Saint Clare's Hospital, where doctors tried to flush out the acid, hoping to save his sight. The pain was unbearable, beyond imagining, Riesel would later say. His eyes and face felt like they were on fire.
Within hours, the Mirror had a photographer with Riesel in his hospital room, capturing images of the columnist in bed, his face and right hand heavily wrapped in white gauze. "I feel like a chump because I was caught flat-footed," Riesel lamented. "I should have realized what was taking place."
News of the horrific attack splashed across front pages around the country, provoking outrage. Offers of reward money flooded in from the Newspaper Guild, the Mirror, and papers from all over. United States attorney Williams called it "an out-and-out threat and a black effort to intimidate witnesses" from aiding his grand jury investigation. He said Riesel "has been working very closely with this effort and we hold him in the highest regard as a man of honor and principle."3
That morning in Chicago, Jimmy Hoffa breezed into a meeting with other Teamsters leaders and made a beeline to national warehouse organizer Sam Baron, a slight, silver-haired man. Hoffa liked to ridicule Baron for being an idealist, a goody two-shoes. Baron held an important post within the Teamsters, was proud of his accomplishments for workers, and as a result was willing to tolerate Hoffa's bullying for the greater good.
Ten years younger, built like a fireplug, with blocky fists and dark, slicked-back hair, Hoffa stubbed a thick finger in Baron's chest. "Hey, Sam, a buddy of yours got it last night."
Baron replied that he didn't know what Hoffa was talking about.
"Your buddy Victor Riesel. Somebody threw acid in his face. The son of a bitch should have had it thrown on the hands he types with, too."4
Baron was horrified, but Hoffa just laughed.
A few minutes later, Hoffa took a telephone call from a top Teamsters official in New York City. "Gee, that's a shame about Riesel," Hoffa said over the phone. "I hope they got the bastard that did it."
After he hung up, one of Hoffa's associates asked about his newfound sympathy for Riesel.
"Don't be stupid," Hoffa replied. "You know that phone's tapped."
IN EARLY 1956, ROBERT F. Kennedy, the thirty-year-old chief counsel for the US Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was also spending time in New York City looking into the underworld. But unlike the work of Riesel or the grand jurors, his efforts were strictly unofficial and took place late on weekend nights as he zoomed around town with detectives in unmarked squad cars.
It was Johnny Dio and his associates who drew Kennedy to Manhattan. At the time, Kennedy still knew nothing of Jimmy Hoffa; off and on for the past year, Kennedy and members of the investigations subcommittee had been digging into suspected procurement fraud, focusing on the millions of dollars the Pentagon paid to private companies to provide military uniforms. As the subcommittee would later show, government officials took kickbacks from mobbed-up apparel makers in exchange for overpriced contracts. A devout Catholic, Harvard-educated, the son of one of the country's richest (and most detested) men, Bobby Kennedy knew little about labor unions and even less about organized crime. But he became fascinated by its sinister practices and was determined to learn what he could about the secret society. In his earnest, hardworking fashion, he sought out experts to give him an underworld education. Asking around, he was told about two top federal narcotics agents who had created a flowchart of New York mob families that traced who did what in the drug trade. He met with the agents. They in turn introduced him to fellow agents in New York, who let him join them on ride-alongs.
After finishing up his work on Fridays in Washington, he would fly to New York, where the Kennedy family had a luxurious apartment. Late at night, RFK and the squad went from drug buy to drug bust across the five boroughs, kicking in doors, rousting dealers, and developing snitches. It was aggressive crime-busting in the wide-open era before strict search warrants and Miranda warnings. Often joining them on raids were New York City narcotics detectives—tough Irish cops battling bad guys and possessing qualities that RFK admired and that fit his own self-image.5
Kennedy came across Johnny Dio's name time and again as the Senate subcommittee dug deeper. A thug and enforcer in the 1930s, Dio helped his crime bosses control a network of dress shops, pattern cutters, shoulder-pad makers, and subcontractors that fed New York's huge garment industry, which, at its peak, supported three hundred thousand jobs. He had perfected the garment-district shakedown. Dio and Mafia member James "Jimmy Doyle" Plumeri, who was also Dio's uncle, set up an association of truck owners and operators who paid them hefty dues. Garment manufacturers had to use these truckers if they didn't want acid thrown on their merchandise or thuggish picketers blocking their storefronts—or if they didn't want Dio, just a bit more forthrightly, instructing his minions to beat up drivers and owners who wouldn't pay up.
It was classic mob strong-arming—violent, effective, and increasingly public. In 1932, Dio was wounded in a shoot-out tied to the rackets, which brought police attention to his trucking monopoly. Twice in the 1930s, with much fanfare in the newspapers, he and his uncle were indicted for coercion and extortion. Both times they were acquitted; witnesses and victims had a habit of abandoning their complaints. Crusading New York special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey brought the two to trial again in 1937. Evidence showed they were getting $500 from each truck driver in the garment district plus a tariff on every suit and topcoat made in the city, a torrent of illicit cash. "At the trial, frightened witnesses testified how recalcitrant employers and employees were beaten when they refused to pay," the Mirror, Riesel's employer, reported. One man testified that he was beaten so badly by Dio thugs he spent two weeks in bed. Another said that gangsters "threatened to cut off his ears" if he didn't comply.6 Dio and Plumeri could afford the best lawyers, but in the midst of Dewey's popular anticrime juggernaut, they were outmatched. In the middle of the trial, Dio and Plumeri halted the damaging revelations by pleading guilty, in Dio's words, to "racketeering, stealing, extorting, that is all."7 He served three years thirty miles up the Hudson River in Sing Sing.
After prison, Dio found success with nonunion dress factories out of state, one of which, Rosemary Fashions (named after his daughter), made dresses that sold for $2.98. But he couldn't stay away from the garment district, the mile-square midtown Manhattan neighborhood packed with hundreds of apparel manufacturers. Workers, mainly women, many of them immigrants, put in long hours for low pay—all of them linked by delivery trucks that moved merchandise from shop to subcontractor to wholesaler to delivery dock. Fiercely competitive, subject to seasonal demands, dependent on Teamsters, the garment trade by its nature was vulnerable to labor racketeers.
There were richer and more powerful crime lords in New York than Johnny Dio, but he showed a knack for capturing public attention. Known as Dapper Mr. D, Dio dressed in well-tailored suits, picked up the checks for friends at the best steak houses in New York, schmoozed at the Luxor Baths, the popular Runyonesque steam room, and found his name linked in gossip columns to Baby Lake, a celebrated chorus girl at the Latin Quarter, a fancy Times Square nightclub. At Christmas, friends recalled, Dapper Mr. D would give his wife a shoe box of cash, with a note saying, "Honey, why don't you buy yourself something nice?" They and their two sons and a daughter lived in an estate in Freeport, Long Island, where Dio was said to enjoy cooking fine Italian cuisine at family dinners each Sunday.
In the early 1950s, Dio took a different path to power, becoming a union official himself. He was awarded charters for six locals with the United Automobile Workers of the American Federation of Labor (not to be confused with the union of the same name run by Walter Reuther, associated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations, or CIO). Dio and his locals, membership in which grew to five thousand, attracted the attention of the farsighted Hoffa, who was laying the groundwork to become Teamsters president. If he could get his friend Dio to bring the locals into the Teamsters union, they would be part of the Teamsters' influential Joint Council 16. Hoffa already had strong support from Teamsters leaders in the Midwest and the South. With Dio's connivance, he could extend his influence into new territory, the East Coast.
At first, it did not go as smoothly as Hoffa planned. He repeatedly wheedled Teamsters president Dave Beck to let Dio into the union, but to his credit, Beck initially refused. Meanwhile, the AFL kicked Dio and his unions out of the federation for running a corrupt operation and exploiting dues-paying members.
In 1955, Hoffa assigned Eddie Cheyfitz to clean up Dio's public image in order to ease him into the union. Eddie Cheyfitz was a dandyish, red-haired Washington lawyer-lobbyist who worked for Hoffa and the Teamsters and whose law partner was a rising star on the national legal scene, Edward Bennett Williams.8 Cheyfitz, on a $60,000 annual retainer with the union, had his work cut out for him.
But by this time, Hoffa undisputedly wielded more power than Beck. Whenever labor reporters pointed this out to him, the rotund, bald-headed labor boss ranted, and his face turned red. At a 1955 press conference after a meeting of the union's executive board, Beck asked Hoffa: "Who's in charge here, Jimmy?" Hoffa smiled and said dutifully, "You are, Dave." Beck beamed at the room full of reporters, as if to say, "See, those stories you're writing aren't true."
In late 1955, Hoffa displayed his clout by persuading the second in command at Teamsters headquarters, Einar Mohn, to approve seven new Teamsters charters that ended up with Dio. Dapper Mr. D and his sharks lost no time in signing sweetheart deals with dozens of small companies that made everything from ladies' clothes to dog food to candy. Business owners funneled their payoffs to Dio by sending consulting fees to Dio's cutout, Equitable Research Associates.9
Building on Hoffa's aggressive lobbying, Dio had his paper locals use their votes to cast out the seventy-four-year-old president of Teamsters Joint Council 16, Martin Lacey. Lacey filed a lawsuit in early 1956, charging election fraud, but Beck didn't back him, and Lacey gave up the fight before long. Once Hoffa's man, John O'Rourke, took over as president of the powerful post, Hoffa was one step closer to becoming president of the country's toughest, biggest union. The only drawback: Lacey's lawsuit was what brought Hoffa, Dio, and the phony locals to the attention of the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan.
In August of 1956, the FBI and US attorney Williams announced that they had cracked the Riesel case. The "mastermind" behind the acid blinding, the FBI said, was labor racketeer Johnny Dio. According to agents, Dio called an April 1—Easter Sunday—meeting at a lower Manhattan candy store run by one of his associates, Gondolfo Miranti. There he announced he needed someone to rough up Riesel for $1,000. Miranti, an ex-con, didn't want to handle the beating himself, so he passed the assignment down the food chain until he had scrounged up twenty-two-year-old Abraham "Abie" Telvi, a less-than-brilliant low-level thug. Telvi was told his victim was a disc jockey named Mr. Marshall whose wife wanted him hurt because he had been unfaithful.
Miranti pointed out "Mr. Marshall" to Telvi one night after Riesel left his late-night radio show. Telvi, a sturdy six-footer, said he could easily handle the five-foot-four man, whom he planned to beat up. The next night, the evening of the assault, Miranti gave Telvi a bottle of sulfuric acid to throw in the victim's face, explaining, "This is easier and you can get away faster."10
It wasn't. Telvi got caught in the backsplash, and several acid drops burned the right side of his face. With a paste of baking soda covering his wounds, Telvi hid in a bakery belonging to a friend for a few days. He was shocked at the lurid headlines and told friends he was upset that "higher-ups from uptown" had lied to him about his victim. He had blinded a politically connected newspaper columnist, bringing heat on himself and his family. Telvi decided he needed to get out of New York and had his brother drive him to Youngstown, Ohio. There he stayed hidden for two months while his burns healed and police investigated the crime four hundred miles away in Manhattan.
Telvi returned to the Lower East Side that summer, angry and unappreciated. With the tabloids treating the Riesel blinding as a crime of the century, Telvi decided he had been underpaid. He demanded $50,000. Through channels, the young hitter was promised that he'd be getting an additional payment in two weeks. Which he did: a fatal gunshot wound to the back of his head. On July 28, his body was discovered dumped into a gutter on a Lower East Side street. Young Abraham Telvi had learned to keep mob secrets the hard way.
Even after the arrests of Dio, Miranti, and other coconspirators, puzzling loose ends remained. Dio's supposed motive behind the acid attack—to intimidate Riesel and keep him from cooperating with the grand jury—did not make sense to journalists and others following the case. Riesel hadn't written specifically about Dio in more than a year. Why would hot-tempered Mr. D wait so long for revenge? And if Dio had been investigated nearly every step of his adult life, what provoked him to act against Riesel this time? Frank Hogan, the New York district attorney, had pursued Dio even during the previous few years, tapping his telephone, convicting him for not paying state income taxes (Dio served only two months), even arresting him over parking violations. Given the scrutiny, why would Dio put himself at risk by going after Riesel?
The likely responsibility for the Riesel attack emerged from examining the timing of events and focusing on the man who had the most to lose without Dio's assistance.
The paper locals grand jury commenced in late March. By Sunday, April 1, only three days after the grand jurors started their questioning, Dio put the Riesel plan in motion. Hoffa, who disliked Riesel, was informed of the crime's success only hours after it happened and appeared thrilled with its horrific results.
The acid attack on Victor Riesel came when much was at stake for Hoffa.11 Johnny Dio would forever be known as the man who blinded Victor Riesel, and the crime guaranteed that police would try to nail him for the rest of his life. But the labor columnist believed that someone else, a higher-up, had told Dio to terrorize him. Riesel, who had a long reciprocal relationship with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, based his belief on information he obtained from Bureau sources. (In a letter, Hoover once thanked Riesel for being a "staunch friend" who helped to blunt "our Red-tinged critics at every move".)12 "The FBI is convinced Jimmy Hoffa ordered the attack," Riesel would one day explain. The columnist added that he, too, was convinced of Hoffa's guilt.13
All roads led back to Hoffa. But in 1956 the man who would become his equal, chief counsel Kennedy, was riding with cops deep into the New York night, getting his bearings in a treacherous business, working his way around the mob's networks and relationships—and he wasn't able to read the map, at least not yet.
Life Is a Jungle
BOBBY KENNEDY WAS LOOKING FOR new targets. The Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations had held twenty-nine days of hearings about fraud in the procurement of military uniforms; on July 10, 1956, RFK and the staff issued a second report about mobbed-up companies that had pushed up the costs of navy caps, army jackets, and the like. But beyond that, he had run out of revelations.
That summer Clark Mollenhoff, Washington bureau chief for the Des Moines Register and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, promoted a target to Kennedy: Detroit Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa. For the past three years, in a sustained crusade of muckraking, Mollenhoff had reported one exposé after the other about Hoffa and the Teamsters.
Kennedy wasn't familiar with Hoffa, so Mollenhoff provided a lengthy explanation and gave him copies of his news articles. Mollenhoff had been after Hoffa since 1953, when the reporter was assigned to look into complaints from a local business about brutal tactics by Teamsters officials in Minneapolis.
Mollenhoff, a lawyer and member of the Newspaper Guild, was sympathetic to unionism. He expected to find that the complaints were little more than grousing by a company trying to save a buck by driving out its union. Instead, what he found shocked him. Hoffa employed hoodlums as union stewards, men who thought nothing of threatening or beating members who wanted a say in how their locals were operated. Furthermore, a car-hauling company was funneling money to Hoffa in exchange for a sweetheart deal that over the years saved it hundreds of thousands of dollars. Mollenhoff outlined one such arrangement in an article that began, "The wife of James R. (Jimmy) Hoffa was on the payroll of the rackets-ridden jukebox local of the Detroit teamsters union at $100 a week, but she never went near the office."
Few reporters investigated the nation's 1.4-million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters. For one, Teamsters drivers delivered newspapers in most cities—and in general, newspapers owners and editors didn't go out of their way to antagonize their distributors. In addition, newspapers were susceptible to union pressure. Unlike automobiles or timber or other products, newspapers were perishable, especially in cities with competing dailies. Bundles of undelivered newspapers delayed by trumped-up work stoppages ended up in trash bins. "Old news" is a pejorative term for a reason.
Not surprisingly, Mollenhoff's exposés had little impact on Hoffa and almost none in the nation's capital. When Hoffa next ran across Mollenhoff, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Hoffa greeted him with a smirk. Looking up at the six-foot-four, 250-pound reporter, the stumpy labor boss said, "Hiya, poison pen." Then Hoffa tried an approach that had worked successfully with other reporters. "Now, lookit here, Clark. They don't pay newspaper reporters enough for you to be giving me the bad time that you've been giving me." Hoffa looked him in the eye, and then coolly said, "Everybody has his price. What's yours?"1 An unnerved Mollenhoff decided to treat the offer as a joke. "You don't have enough money, Jimmy," he replied.
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