Learning from Heroes Who Fought the Mafia

The nation’s top leaders from both parties put aside their differences in the late 1960s to create tough-but-fair law enforcement tools that broke the Mafia’s horrid power.

That process was the focus of a fascinating panel organized last week by the Richard Nixon Foundation, which recorded the session and provides it here for viewing. The issues are in the news also because on June 22 the FBI arrested James "Whitey" Bulger, who had been on the run since 1995. The FBI put up $2 million reward in a worldwide manhunt for their former Mafia informant, the subject of two major books and inspiration for the 2006 movie, "The Departed," as portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Bulger now faces charges of participating in 13 murders. 

The federal crusade against the Mafia carries a strong personal link for me. My mother was an author during the 1960s who volunteered to federal officials to make underworld drug buys as part of her book research about the mob's role in counterfeiting prescription drugs dispensed by the nation's pharmacies and physicians. Then In 1967, she was invited to be a star witness kicking off one of the major congressional oversight hearings about the Mafia after its existence was revealed. More recently, the Justice Integrity Richard NixonProject that I lead exposes misconduct by officials at today's Justice Department in situations where politics leads to dire results for the public.

Let’s start with last week’s forum in Washington, DC.

The foundation convened four Justice Department alumns instrumental in helping top national political leaders win public support for vital anti-racketeering legislation. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) act signed in 1970 by President Nixon, portrayed at right, provided the legal tools to crush the long-powerful secret society. The Mafia, or what New Yorkers call Cosa Nostra, was virtually unknown to others until longtime member Joe Valachi began talking in 1962 to trusted federal prosecutors and Bureau of Narcotics agents. Even then, many in the public and law enforcement did not know about his account or appreciate that he was providing a roadmap to vast corruption of American business, unions and politics.

Robert F. KennedyThe RICO law's innovative provisions enabled enforcement that reduced the Mafia’s strength from 22 “families” with 5,000 “made” members with pervasive control of legitimate businesses nationwide to just two New York-based families and an assortment gangs elsewhere totalling about 1,200 members, according panelist G. Robert Blakey.

The former Senate aide and Justice Department employee now teaches at the Notre Dame School of Law. He is widely regarded as the principal drafter of the RICO law because of his work as chief counsel of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee from 1969 to 1973. But Blakey modestly says he primarily organized the ideas of the chairman, Arkansas Democratic Senator John L. McClellan. His commitment to destroy the Mafia evolved in a rare, bipartisan collaboration with such other leaders as Democratic Attorney Gen. Robert Kennedy, portrayed at left in 1964, and the Republican president, Nixon, and his attorney general, John Mitchell.

Panelists Richard W. Velde and Wallace H. Johnson were key Senate and DOJ Republican staffers from that era. Their insights about the collaboration emphasized also the role of Republicans Roman Hruska, a senator from Nebraska, and Richard Poff, a congressman from Virginia. As moderator, former Nixon White House staffer Geoffrey C. Shepard led a vigorous discussion. 

"Democrats and Republicans can work together,” said Blakey, “which doesn’t illustrate what’s going on today.” Success requires four thin
John L. McClellangs, he said: good law, good procedures, good organization and “good people.” He traced progress in the anti-Mafia effort to several key junctures. One was the Senate hearings in 1957 chaired by McClellan, right, after a New York state policeman broke up what turned out to be the nation’s most important organized crime summit in history on a farm in Apalachin, near the state's border with Pennsylvania.

Then, according to Blakey's account, came Kennedy’s insistence on more vigorous investigations at the DOJ. Bipartisan Senate and House leadership labored during the Johnson administration to produce a law sufficient to attack the scope of the problem, with the Executive Branch supportive during the Nixon administration. In 1968, Congress passed new legislation that let prosecutors overcome traditional privacy protections by obtaining electronic surveillance under tight oversight by both the Justice Department and courts. Congress followed up in 1970 with RICO, which allowed authorities to attack the structure of criminal enterprises and their “legitimate” fronts in business or unions instead of settling for piecemeal prosecutions that allowed the corrupt fronts to thrive.

Robert Blakey The 1968 and 1970 laws enabled great progress. In particular, RICO provides that individuals can be convicted of racketeering if they commit any 2 of 32 existing federal and state offenses if they commit them by or through an enterprise. The crimes begin with murder and range to such relatively minor offenses as gambling or mailing a letter to further a fraud. In a concept new to American law, RICO also gave the government the power to seize property belonging to convicted criminals.

The idea was to stop the mob from taking over legitimate businesses. In a 1985 article, "Silencing the Rackets" that I wrote for Boston Magazine, I quoted the Patriarca Family's Boston leader, Gerry Anguilo, as explaining the law to his gang in 1981. "It might be me, you, him, him, and him, too," Angiulo said. "Nobody knows. Under RICO, no matter who the fuck we are, if we're together, they'll get every fucking one of us." As it happened, that conversation in the mob's headquarters at 98 Prince Street was tape-recorded by the FBI under a federal warrant authorized by the 1968 law. Even so, Blakey, at left, now emphasizes, “We were not 'successful,' period, end-of-story.” The mob continues to exist, he says, albeit in weakened form. The mob has broadened its base to include dangerous alliances with gangs of varied ethnic backgrounds, he says, and thus could return to power.

The two-hour panel discussion last week provided similar authoritative perspectives. Nonetheless, it prompted me to revisit additional sources to round out this column. One still-controversial topic is the role of longtime FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. His career has prompted many book-length treatments and a forthcoming movie, J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. One of its themes is that Hoover was reluctant to investigate
the mob. In 1959, he assigned just four of the FBI’s personnel in New York City to such work. This compared to nearly 400  FBI staff assigned there to investigate suspected communists, according to crime writer Peter Maas, Valachi’s biographer in the 1968 best-seller, The Valachi Papers. But Nixon honored Hoover upon RICO’s enactment and on other such occasions. The inside story, enabled in part by Watergate-era tape recordings now available via the Nixon Foundation, is that Nixon and others feared that Hoover was using the bureau's investigative tools in part to intimidate presidents and Congress alike to remain in power. Nixon’s fear of Hoover and his blunt reaction upon learning of the director's death are here in excerpts from a 1993 Anthony Sampson biography, The Man Who

Collected Dirt.

The controversies continue. Washington investigative reporter Wayne Madsen reported that thJ. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolsone FBI’s leadJ. Edgar Hooverership regards Eastwood as persona non grata these days for any future cooperation because of the movie's negative portrayal of Hoover. I heard the same thing about defenders of the Hoover legacy from a retired FBI agent who is still well-connected. Portrayed at left in a 1924 photo, Hoover founded the FBI’s predecessor agency. In 1935, Hoover became the first FBI director. He continued until his death in 1972.  At right, he was relaxing with Clyde Tolson, the FBI's longtime deputy director.

Probably the best complement to the C-SPAN coverage of the Nixon panel is The Valachi Papers, which I could not put down while re-reading it over the weekend. Valachi, born in New York in 1904, came of age with the consolidation of the secret society in the late 1920s. The best man at Valachi's wedding was Vito Genovese, who would ultimately become the nation’s most important Mafia leader of his time, and also Valachi’s cellmate in Atlanta’s federal prison. There, Genovese bestowed on Valachi a kiss, which he interpreted as a death-sentence farewell that was unwarranted because Valachi was not an informer then. But the unfairness prompted Valachi to regard Genovese himself as a traitor to mob traditions, thereby freeing Valachi to defend himself. Valachi became the first and most valuable federal informant about the Mafia. He disclosed the organization’s true name, Cosa Nostra (“Our thing”). More important, he described its organization structure as only an insider would know.

Politics almost squelched Valachi's report of about how the mob controlled much of the nation's commerce and politics. Valachi's Senate testimony in 1963 was ineffective in providing clarity, with many in public life still not convinced that a Mafia existed. Therefore, Kennedy's DOJ successors under Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach authorized Valachi to write his memoirs. The prisoner did so with precision in handwritten notes that became 1,180 typed pages. Then the DOJ authorized Maas, a noted crime writer, to edit the Valachi memoirs. In the DOJ's 1965 letter of authorization, it told Maas, "It is possible and even likely that law enforcement will be benefitted substantially by publication of the book."

But Italian-American groups persuaded the Johnson White House and Katzenbach to withdraw permission and obtain an injunction against the book's publication. “What are they yelling about?” Maas recalled Valachi as saying at the time. "I’m not writing about Italians. I'm writing about mob guys.”  Maas, now deceased like most others mentioned here, persisted. He devised an innovative plan to write the book as his own, based on Valachi’s manuscript and interviews. The book published in 1968 became a worldwide best-seller, and helped pave the way for other writers. Among them was the near-contemporary work of Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather. The latter evolved into memorable films and television shows.

My mother, M
Margaret Kreigargaret Kreig, was a New York City-based freelancer covering these developments. She had dropped out of college to volunteer for active duty with the U.S. Marines Women's Reserve in World War II shortly after it began accepting women in 1943. Then she became a crime and consumer affairs writer for national magazines on topics that included the Senate's organized crime hearings in 1951 led by Estes Kefauver (D-Tennessee). After becoming medical editor of Parent's Magazine, she interviewed Dr. Albert Hoffman, creator of LSD, and journeyed to the Amazon jungle with Harvard researchers to meet witch doctors for her pioneering account of natural remedies published in 1964, Green Medicine: The Search for the Plants That Heal. That book led her to a unique arrangement with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the 1960s whereby FDA provided her with investigative records about Mafia and other underworld plots to counterfeit prescription drugs and persuade businesses to sell them as bona fide medicine. Her research included working as an undercover, free-lance investigator with the FDA on such missions as drug buys. At the time, the FDA did not employ females as agents. At left, she poses as a truck stop madam seeking uppers and downs for "my girls."

Her 1967 book, Black Market Medicine, exposed nationwide mob infiltration into the prescription drug industry. In June that year, she was the initial witness before the House Committee on Government Operations in a three-day hearing on, "The Federal Effort Against Organized Crime." Subcommittee Chairman Dante Fascell (D-Florida) introduced her in glowing terms for her work exposing how the mob  produced in backroom conditions what were being sold as life-saving, brand-name prescription drugs. She provided the panel with an overview of the two dozen Mafia families plus the affiliate Murder, Inc. She outlined how the distribution process works -- including threats to break the legs of legitimate business owners who won't push the pills.

A Rhode Island congressman asked, "I wonder whether you would agree that Cosa Nostra is a whole lot better organized in our country than law enforcers?

She responded "Yes," with examples of how turf battles between the FBI and other agencies sometimes left vital crime-prevention information locked away from effective use. She urged the panel to use its oversight authority to break up such law enforcement logjams.

Dr. James Goddard, FDA commissioner, testified also. The three-day hearing was one of the nation’s first, comprehensive post-Valachi congressional hearings about the Mafia. The Bureau of Narcotics provided the public with thumbnail sketches of known mobsters involved in drug-selling, including Valachi and Genovese. That list of mobsters became part of a decades-long effort by authorities to build on Valachi's revelations to crack omerta, the Mafia’s code of silence punishable by death, and to understand how the mob controlled ostensibly legitimate organizations. The subcommittee's hearing transcript includes as an appendix a letter from the FBI’s Hoover criticizing as inaccurate one of my mother's examples of FBI lack of cooperation with FDA agents. Hoover reassured the panel that the FBI was undertaking all steps necessary to protect the public.  

By coincidence, my career touched also on federal investigations of the Mafia. As a reporter for the Hartford Courant in the 1970s, I covered the first major mob prosecution under RICO. The lead Justice Department prosecutor, Paul Coffey, ascended after similar triumphs around the country to become the longtime head of the RICO unit in Organized Crime and Racketeering Section of DOJ. In the 1980s, he was one of the experts who provided me perspective for my magazine articles about national trends in DOJ prosecutions of Mafia leaders. As I shifted careers to become
a lawyer, I was hired in 1988 by Boston federal judge Mark Wolf to become his law clerk upon graduation in 1990 from the University of Chicago School of Law. In the interim, the Strike Force indicted New England’s Patriarca Family leadership based on 30 years of wiretaps and other evidence.

The case was assigned to Wolf for trial. The key issue was whether the judge would allow as evidence the decades of surveillance, including that of the mob’s Boston headquarters and of a Mafia initiation ceremony. The judge wanted to ensure that the seven defendants, including Raymond Patriarca, Jr., and the government each felt confident that the proceedings were fair. So, the judge submitted my journalistic to work to them for their approval. Ultimately, the judge ruled that the evidence was lawfully obtained under warrants. The defendants pleaded guilty and received long sentences. But Wolf, by then chief federal judge in Massachusetts, drew on his long experience to expose in a 661-page decision serious misconduct by federal authorities that violated the rights of the Mafia defendants, in ways that ultimately pose a threat to rights everyone in the public enjoys. As chronicled by the 2000 book, Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and the Devil’s Deal by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neil, Wolf’s extraordinary dedication exposed one of the greatest scandals in recent FBI history. The revelations of FBI and DOJ coddling of informants led to the resignation of several prosecutors. Also, it led to the life imprisonment on racketeering and second-degree murder charges of the FBI's lead case agent, John Connolly, for becoming an ally of Whitey Bulger's Irish mob, which expanded its turf when the Patriarca mob was prosecuted.

Clearly, I have more interest than most in this history. In that spirit, I applaud C-SPAN and the Nixon foundation for making the historic insights of the speakers so conveniently available to a wider audience.
Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, John MitchellIn the meantime, let's try understand how nation’s leaders worked so well together to address problems that have parallels today.

Most important, these heroes of politics and law enforcement put aside their partisan differences to work for the common good, as the panelists emphasized last week. Law enforcers also relied upon court-authorized surveillance methods, not the secretive and potentially abusive methods that our Justice Integrity Project so often must discuss these days. Authorities are reportedly collecting and storing billions of emails and phone calls with scant oversight by courts or Congress. Nixon, Mitchell and more than a dozen other of their colleagues were punished for conduct that might not even be investigated now.

Finally, this history suggests that our leaders are rounded figures capable at the same time of great good, and not so much. Thus, Nixon apparently feared and also honored Hoover, who is pictured in a White House photo above just to the left of the president on June 4, 1970 when he signed an executive order creating the National Council on Organized Crime. Similarly, Nixon and Mitchell (the latter standing at Hoover's left), deserve high praise for their effective fight against the Mafia.

Let's draw the right lessons, and carry on.

Contact the author Andrew Kreig or comment




The column above was updated to include news of the June 22 Bulger arrest. Below are news reports about it and other significant news about legal reform and related political, security and media factors. The articles, including a strong representation from independent blogs and other media, contain a sample of news. See the full article by clicking the link.


Justice Integrity Project, FBI Confronts Its Demons By Busting Mobster Whitey Bulger, Andrew Kreig, June 28, 2011. The FBI’s capture of Boston mobster James “Whitey” Bulger in California last week on 19 murder charges shows impressive commitment. Agents used a $2 million reward and an innovative publicity campaign to locate the former FBI informant even though his prosecution could bring the FBI new embarrassment. Two top FBI agents have already been accused of murder in the shocking tale of Bulger’s reign as a stone-cold killer protected both by law enforcement and his brother, William “Billy” Bulger, the longtime president of the Massachusetts senate and a powerbroker with national-level clout.

Associated Press via Washington Post, Bulger verdict brings closure for some victims’ families and eternal angst for others, Staff report, Aug. 12, 2013.The guilty verdicts against James “Whitey” Bulger brought catharsis and closure to relatives of the 11 victims in whose killings he was convicted of playing a role, but for the families of the eight people whose deaths couldn’t be definitively linked to the Boston mob boss, peace will be harder to come by.

NeJames Whitey Bulgerw York Daily News, James 'Whitey' Bulger, infamous Boston mobster on the lam for 16 years, busted outside Los Angeles, Lukas I. AlJames "Whitey" Bulger as young manpert, June 23, 2011.  Notorious Boston Mob kingpin James "Whitey" Bulger has finally been busted near Los Angeles, ending a 16-year manhunt that had proved a major embarrassment for the FBI. The Feds finally caught up with the 81-year-old fugitive Wednesday at a Santa Monica home where he was living with his long-time gal-pal Catherine Greig. [Bulger is shown at right and left, with photos courtesy of Wikipedia via Creative Commons license, like most in this column.]

Associated Press / Kennebec Journal (Maine), Fugitive gangster 'Whitey' Bulger nabbed in California, Brian Melley and Greg Risling, June 23, 2011.  Boston mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger was captured near Los Angeles after spending the last 16 years on the run during an epic manhunt that served as a major embarrassment to the FBI and made the fugitive a global sensation as he constantly found a way to elude authorities. The FBI finally caught the 81-year-old Bulger Wednesday at a residence in Santa Monica along with his longtime girlfriend Catherine Greig just days after the government launched a new publicity campaign to locate the fugitive mobster, said the FBI.  [Bulger is shown at right and left, with photos courtesy of Wikipedia via Creative Commons license, like most in this column.] The arrest was based on a tip from the campaign, he said.  The arrest brings an end to a manhunt that received worldwide attention as the FBI received reported sightings of Bulger and Greig from all over the United States and parts of Europe. The investigation also touched the highest level of Massachusetts politics. Bulger's younger brother, William, was one of the most powerful politicians in the state, leading the Massachusetts Senate for 17 years and later serving as president of the University of Massachusetts for seven years.

Washington Post, Publicity campaign led to mobster’s arrest, FBI says, Jerry Markon, June 24, 2011.  For 16 years, the FBI had pursued James “Whitey” Bulger, chasing the elusive Boston mobster across five continents. On Tuesday, agents tried a new approach: They blasted photos of Bulger’s longtime girlfriend, Catherine Elizabeth Greig, across television screens and Twitter. Federal officials in Boston say a tip led the FBI to begin surveillance on former mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger's apartment in Santa Monica, Calif.

CNN’s In the Arena, Lehr: Gangster 'Whitey' Bulger, feared leg-breaker and enforcer, killed his way to the top, Jay Kernis . June 24, 2011.  Answering today’s OFF-SET questions is Dick Lehr, co-author with Gerard O’Neill of “Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance between the FBI and the Irish Mob.”  The book was a New York Times bestseller and won the Edgar Award. Both authors were reporters at The Boston Globe. Lehr is also a professor of journalism at Boston University. Question: Why do you think it took so long to capture Whitey Bulger? To me, big reasons are Bulger's age -- he's an old man now, and when you look at him you don't see the cold-blooded killer that he was during his rule of Boston's underworld. Then there's his self-discipline; he's not flamboyant and would be the last person to draw attention to himself.

Salon /Unclaimed Territory, Climate of Fear: Jim Risen v. the Obama administration, Glenn Greenwald, June 23, 2011. The Obama DOJ's effort to force New York Times investigative journalist Jim Risen to testify in a whistleblower prosecution and reveal his source is really remarkable and revealing in several ways; it should be receiving much more attention than it is.  On its own, the whistleblower prosecution and accompanying targeting of Risen are pernicious, but more importantly, it underscores the menacing attempt by the Obama administration -- as Risen yesterday pointed out -- to threaten and intimidate whistleblowers, journalists and activists who meaningfully challenge what the government does in secret.

Reason, What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: The peril of vague criminal statutes, Harvey Silverglate, July 2011. The Soviet Union enacted an infamous Harvey Silverglatelaw in 1922 that criminalized “hooliganism.” The crime was in the eye of the beholder, the beholder of consequence being the Soviet secret police. Because it was impossible for dissidents to know in advance whether they were violating this prohibition, they were always subject to arrest and imprisonment, all ostensibly according to law. One of the gravest threats to liberty today is the federal government’s ability to prosecute the innocent under hopelessly vague statutes and laws. Far too many federal laws leave citizens unsure about the line between legal and illegal conduct, punishing incorrect guesses with imprisonment. The average working American adult, going about his or her normal life, commits several arguable federal felonies a day without even realizing it. Entire lives can change based on the attention of a creative federal prosecutor interpreting vague criminal laws.

Bergen Record, Dwek arrested; Witnesses switched, Stephanie Akin, June 20, 2011. Former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell is waiting for opening arguments to begin on the first day of his federal corruption trial, but the big question on everyone’s mind is how will the recent arrest of key witness Solomon Dwek figure into the government’s case. Elwell’s attorneys learned just Friday that Dwek was charged on May 31 with stealing a rental car in Baltimore, MD. During the same phone call, prosecutors informed Elwell’s defense team that they were pulling Dwek from his marquee spot as the first witness to take the stand, putting former Elwell co-defendant Ron Manzo in his place.  Opening statements will be postponed while Elwell’s attorneys, Thomas Cammarata and Jeffrey Carrigan, argue a pre-trial motion they submitted in light of the switch: a request to gain access to presentencing reports from a 2004 charge against Manzo for insider trading in Manhattan.The switch could also indicate that federal prosecutors are trying to put less weight on Dwek’s testimony in light of his recent arrest. 

Associated Press / NJ.com, Dwek charged in Maryland, misses opening of former Secaucus Mayor Elwell's corruption trial, June 20, 2011. Solomon Dwek, the star undercover witness at the center of several cases in the wide-ranging corruption probe has been charged with failure to return a rental car and was not in court today to testify in the trial of former Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell.  Elwell is charged with accepting $10,000 through Ronald Manzo and Dwek, who was posing as a developer. New York Times, War Evolves With Drones, Some Tiny as Bugs, Elisabeth Bumiller and Thom Shanker, June 20, 2011. From blimps to bugs, an explosion in aerial drones is transforming the way America fights and thinks about its wars.  The Pentagon now has some 7,000 aerial drones, compared with fewer than 50 a decade ago. Within the next decade the Air Force anticipates a decrease in manned aircraft but expects its number of “multirole” aerial drones like the Reaper — the ones that spy as well as strike — to nearly quadruple, to 536. Already the Air Force is training more remote pilots, 350 this year alone, than fighter and bomber pilots combined. The Pentagon has asked Congress for nearly $5 billion for drones next year, and by 2030 envisions ever more stuff of science fiction: “spy flies” equipped with sensors and microcameras to detect enemies, nuclear weapons or victims in rubble.

Salon / Unclaimed Territory, Public opinion and Endless War, Glenn Greenwald, June 20, 2011. If Obama succeeds in entrenching the notion that drone attacks are not "wars" or even "hostilities," he and future presidents will be able to bomb other countries with even fewer constraints than they have now. This state of Endless War continues despite the fact that, as a new poll shows, 72% of Americans believe the U.S. is fighting too many wars.  The poll itself is revealingly amusing: in what other country could that question -- are we fighting too many wars? -- even be meaningfully asked?  It's also striking that almost 3 out of 4 Americans -- not exactly renown around the world for being war-shy -- believe the U.S. is fighting too many wars given that their country is ruled by a recent Nobel Peace Prize winner.