Were Richard Nixon’s alleged ties to organized crime real or mere speculation?

Were Richard Nixon’s alleged ties to organized crime real or mere speculation?

The president known for the Watergate scandal also fought for anti-Mob legislation and indicted several top Mob bosses

President Richard Nixon, right, sits with close friend Bebe Rebozo, left, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1971 at the president’s Key Biscayne, Florida, home. Courtesy of National Archives.

In the final days before the 1968 presidential election, the so-called “war on crime” was the top domestic issue of the day. Specifically, the news media asked the candidates, Republican Richard Nixon, Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey and American Independent Party candidate and Alabama Governor George Wallace, how they would attack organized crime if elected.

Nixon, then the frontrunner in the polls, in an October 29 guest column, blamed the lack of progress on organized crime on the lame-duck Johnson administration for refusing “to support legislation for wiretap authority against organized crime, an essential tool.”

On October 31, in response to a query from the Associated Press on “how would you combat the growth of organized crime,” Nixon said it was “essential” to strengthen the Justice Department’s organized crime division and enable the recording of phone conversations of suspects, permitted in a just-passed 1968 federal law but opposed by President Lyndon Johnson’s attorney general, Ramsey Clark.

“I would use the wiretapping power which has been given to the Justice Department by Congress and which the attorney general has refused to use against organized crime because of his objections to the provision,” Nixon stated.

It definitely sounded like Nixon, who died 25 years ago last week, would, as president, get tough on America’s underworld. At the time, some critics suggested the federal government’s interest in bringing down the Mob had declined significantly from the early 1960s, when former Attorney General Robert Kennedy made it a top priority.

Nixon won the 1968 election narrowly, beating Humphrey by 812,000 popular votes. He won the Electoral College, tallying 301 votes to 191 for Humphrey and 46 for Wallace.

What remains a debate today is the extent of Nixon’s own connections to organized crime. The national syndicate of crime families maintained significant operations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and elsewhere in the 1970s. When Nixon and others of his generation began their political careers in the 1940s, organized crime was practically woven into the national fabric, from illegal gambling and bookmaking to prostitution, narcotics, labor racketeering, casino skimming and political and judicial corruption. For politicians, the Mob could arrange for unreported campaign donations and influence in turning out tens of thousands of labor voters in elections.

So, did Nixon have Mob connections? If so, did they influence him, especially early in his political career? Or were these allegations overblown and mainly the result of rumor, guilt by association and misinformation?

Perhaps a bigger question is if the Mob held sway over Nixon, why did he as president pursue organized crime so aggressively with reform legislation and stepped-up enforcement?

Some Mob history commentators believe Nixon’s syndicate ties ran deep, that he was all but “mobbed up,” and from the mid-1940s into the early 1970s maintained secret associations – offering political favors in exchange for hidden campaign cash – with infamous mobsters such as Mickey Cohen, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Vincent “Blue Eyes” Alo and Tony Provenzano. There’s also an alleged link to Mob-connected former Teamsters Union president James Hoffa.

Perhaps an explanation is that Nixon used various means, legal and illicit, to move up quickly from congressman to senator, vice president and president. But from his perch in power in the White House, as a policy maker, he clearly fought against Mob interests.

Following his election in 1968 and during his first term, in April 1969, the new Nixon administration proposed $61 million to fight organized crime and supported major anti-Mob legislation. Also that month, his Justice Department in Miami compelled major U.S. mobsters Lansky, Alo, Tony Accardo, Tony Ricci and Dominick Angelini to testify under oath before a grand jury investigating meetings in Hollywood, California, by La Cosa Nostra chiefs to choose a successor to the recently deceased Genovese family boss Vito Genovese.

RICO law

Nixon’s legislative proposal, offered in conjunction with the anti-Mob crusader Senator John McClellan, Democrat from Arkansas, would expand the federal government’s anti-racketeering field offices, or “strike forces,” from eight to 12, add 1,000 federal agents and 30 new lawyers to Justice, make large-scale gambling a federal crime, seek to prevent the Mob from entering legitimate businesses, grant immunity to witnesses testifying in organized crime cases, give the IRS more power to collect the federal gambling tax and income taxes on gamblers, and provide for prison sentences of up to 25 years for organized crime offenses.

Nixon worked with Senator John McClellan, D-Arkansas, center with pen and paper, to champion a bipartisan crime bill that included the RICO law, which prosecutors used to take down the Mob in cities across the country. Courtesy of U.S. Senate Historical Office.

McClellan said in 1969 that the proposal, Senate Bill 30, would revive the battle taken up by the former Attorney General Robert Kennedy eight years before but that had foundered since Kennedy resigned his post in 1964, months after his brother, President John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963 (Robert was assassinated in June 1968).

“When Bob Kennedy left the Department of Justice, the organized crime program seemed to leave with him, it just seemed to fall apart,” McClellan said.

Nixon pressed Congress on this comprehensive legislation, and out of the effort with Democrats came the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970. The final bill included a crucial section, giving federal prosecutors the right to charge criminal conspirators – acting on or threatening murder, bribery, extortion, embezzlement and other lawbreaking – under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) provision. Years later, in the 1980s, RICO laws were used to severely cripple organized crime syndicates across America.

Robert Blakey, majority counsel to the House Subcommittee on Criminal Laws, who assisted in writing the legislation, said several years ago that with laws passed by Congress in June 1968 permitting warranted wiretaps and RICO in 1970, “[y]ou put those things together – we had the following impact: from 5,000 [La Cosa Nostra] members [to] none [now] outside New York, and of the five families in New York there are two today that are good. … It’s just not there anymore.”

By fall 1970, the criminal division of the Justice Department boasted of obtaining indictments of 117 major Mob figures since January 1969. Among those charged were bosses Tony Accardo and Felix Alderisio of Chicago, Angelo Bruno of Philadelphia, New York’s Carlo Gambino and Joseph Colombo, and Newark, N.J., crime lord Anthony Boiardo.

Watergate

Of course, any discussion or speculation about Nixon must include the elephant in the room – the mind-boggling criminal conspiracy known as Watergate that Nixon directed while president in the early 1970s. The record showed that Nixon, like a racketeer in his own right, was more than willing to break laws with impunity – including ordering illegal burglaries, espionage, the raising of cash for payoffs, bugging and wiretapping to spy on and intimidate political enemies to ensure his re-election in 1972.

In 1973, Nixon, in a taped conversation, ordered White House aides to obstruct the Watergate investigation: “… I am perfectly willing to – I don’t give a shit what happens. I want you to stonewall it, tell them to plead the Fifth Amendment, cover up or anything else.”

His actions to impede Justice Department and congressional investigations prompted the Democratic Party-controlled House Judiciary Committee to recommend his impeachment to the full House of Representatives. When told that if impeached (charged) by the House, he did not have the support to block conviction in the Senate, he resigned as president on August 9, 1974. About 40 people associated with his administration went to jail from the scandal.

The following are some of the main allegations of Mob associations, such as they were or were not, made about Nixon over the years:

Mickey Cohen

The most widely published missive tying Nixon to the Mob originated from an oral statement that former L.A. syndicate boss Mickey Cohen made, while in prison at Alcatraz, in 1962. But under scrutiny, the statement loses credibility based on factual errors.

In the statement, given to Richard R. Rogan, former deputy attorney general and a Democratic Party leader in California, Cohen claimed he first met a younger Richard Nixon at the “Goodfellow’s Fisherman’s Grotto” [actual name: Good Fellows Grotto] restaurant in downtown Los Angeles in 1946. Cohen claimed Nixon campaign manager Murray Chotiner set it up, and both men asked him “to raise some money for Nixon’s campaign.” But Cohen, bookmaking chief of Los Angeles, who co-ran the city’s vice rackets with Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel until Siegel’s death in 1947 and feuded with rival boss Jack Dragna, did not say if he donated any money to Nixon in 1946.

Los Angeles mobster Mickey Cohen said he raised money for Richard Nixon’s political campaigns in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but little evidence supports his claims.

Cohen then stated that in “either” 1948 or 1950, “I was again asked by Murray Chotiner to raise funds for Nixon’s campaign. During that time, I was running the gambling and bookmaking in Los Angeles County. I reserved the banquet room in the Hollywood Knickerbocker Hotel on Ivar Street in Hollywood for a dinner meeting to which I invited approximately 250 persons who were working with me in the gambling fraternity.”

Cohen said that among the guests were Dragna, L.A. mobsters Joe and Fred Sica, George Capri (part owner of the Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas) and Hy Goldbaum (a Cohen bookie and Las Vegas casino operative).

Chotiner, Cohen went on, “told me I should have a quota of $25,000 for the campaign,” then Nixon spoke to the group for about 10 minutes and Chotiner about half an hour. But Cohen’s allies could only muster from $17,000 to $19,000, under the quota “set by Nixon and Chotiner and the group was informed they would have to stay until the quota was met.”

So hardened mobsters were intimidated by Nixon and Chotiner?

After raising the “quota,” Cohen claimed he later “made arrangements to rent a headquarters for Nixon in the Pacific Finance Building at Eighth and Olive Streets in Los Angeles … occupied by [Cohen’s] attorney Sam Rummel.”

But this assertion, quoted in many books and websites, does not pan out. The Pacific Finance Building was on Hope and Sixth streets then. Nixon’s main headquarters was in Whittier and his Los Angeles election office in the Garland Building on West Ninth Street. Rummel’s office location was likely the Commercial Exchange Building, not listed among Nixon campaign offices by the Los Angeles Times on October 30, 1950.

Cohen further states that in “the period that I ran Nixon headquarters, I contacted most of the gambling fraternity in Los Angeles County to tell them what their share of the Nixon campaign would be.”

Cohen related that he made the statement in light of Nixon’s remarks during the Republican’s 1962 California gubernatorial campaign “that organized crime is active in California and that Eastern hoodlums were seeking a foothold in California to organized bookmaking.” Cohen wanted people to know of “Nixon’s entry into politics being based upon money raised by me and my associates in the gambling fraternity who started him off with $25,000.”

Syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson, in a column published October 31, 1968, five days before the presidential election, claimed that based on Cohen’s alleged campaign cash, “[w]hat the gamblers got in return is spelled out” in Los Angeles County court records: between 1949 and 1952, Chotiner and Chotiner’s brother “acted as attorney in 221 bookmaking and underworld cases” and nearly always the “clients got off with light fines or suspended sentences.”

No doubt Chotiner, as a lawyer, made an income representing a lot of underworld associates arrested for alleged bookmaking. However, there are reasons to question Cohen’s statement itself. In an interview years later with the author Larry Summers, Cohen changed the $25,000 he said he raised for Nixon to $75,000, “a considerable piece of money in those days,” the ex-mobster said. But even Summers, clearly no fan of Nixon, cast doubt on Cohen’s story.

“However damning, is this account by a criminal really credible?” Summers wrote in his 2000 book, The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon. “Did Nixon and Chotiner ask one of the leading mobsters in Los Angeles, a man notorious for his crimes even then, for cash contributions—and not in one but two election campaigns?”

Some Mob writers also state that Cohen gave himself credit for providing money to a “slush fund” that got Nixon in deep trouble and nearly kicked off the GOP presidential ticket led by Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. However, that is doubtful, as the Nixon campaign released the names of 76 people who were the sources of that $18,000 fund, used to pay his political expenses. News stories carried the names of the contributors. Federal authorities started a criminal investigation into the fund. Eisenhower wanted reassurances that Nixon was “clean as a hound’s tooth” and considered replacing him on the ticket. Nixon made an emotional speech explaining himself on national TV, called “the Checkers speech,” that so moved Republicans that Eisenhower kept him on the ticket.

Bebe Rebozo and Meyer Lansky

Nixon met Charles “Bebe” Rebozo, a Cuban native, in Florida in the early 1950s and they remained close pals for decades, hanging out – and photographed frequently by the newspapers – at Nixon’s Key Biscayne vacation home. Some speculate that Rebozo included Miami crime family “executive” Meyer Lansky in his investment opportunities and shared in Lansky’s illegal gambling businesses in Florida. Rebozo is reputed to have been in with other mobsters such as Al Polizzi of Cleveland and Santo Trafficante Jr. of Florida who may been able to influence Nixon.

The late Mob writer Hank Messick also argued, but could not prove, that Nixon shared financial interests with Lansky. Messick claimed in the 1970s that Donald C. Alexander, Nixon’s appointee as IRS chief, stopped an investigation that alleged Nixon held numbered accounts in the Castle Bank in the Bahamas “where numerous American gangsters, businessmen and politician have accounts.”

Another story has Nixon, after becoming vice president, staying in a suite “comped” by Lansky at Lansky’s Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, in the mid-1950s when Fulgencio Batista, the corrupt president and Lansky crony, ruled the country. Nixon was rumored to have run up a gambling debt of up to $50,000 that Rebozo covered. Nixon is also said to have gambled at Lansky casinos in the Bahamas.

Marco “The Little Guy” Reginelli

In 1956, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations learned that Murray Chotiner, Nixon’s campaign manager in 1946, 1950 and 1952, accepted $1,000 to defend Marco “The Little Guy” Reginelli, a Mob boss, from deportation. Committee counsel Robert Kennedy described Reginelli as “a top hoodlum in the New Jersey and Philadelphia areas.” Nixon distanced himself from Chotiner but rehired him for his ultimately unsuccessful 1962 campaign for California governor and his 1968 presidential run.

Jimmy Hoffa

Nixon maintained political contacts with James Hoffa, the Mob-connected president of the International Teamsters Union, throughout the 1950s, sharing a rivalry (one of hatred for Hoffa) with John and Robert Kennedy. Hoffa could, with his endorsements, influence the voting decisions of many thousands of Teamsters in multiple states. Hoffa agreed to back Nixon over John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential election. Based on a statement by a government informant, Nixon allegedly accepted two $500,000 cash payments delivered on behalf of Hoffa. Later, while Hoffa served a 13-year federal prison sentence for jury tampering and misspending union funds, and after Nixon became president, Hoffa is alleged to have delivered a $300,000 bribe to Nixon to secure his release from incarceration. Neither case has been proved, or likely can be.

In December 1971, Nixon did commute Hoffa’s sentence, granting him freedom nine years early, but with the condition that he not take part in “direct or indirect management of any labor organization” until his entire sentence would have ended on March 6, 1980. Hoffa sought to regain union power anyway, but disappeared in 1975 and was declared dead in 1982.

Crime historians say that Hoffa’s fierce rival, New York area mobster Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, sent Nixon a bribe of $500,000 to influence the president into preventing Hoffa from managing a union again, period. Provenzano preferred Nixon’s political friend Frank Fitzsimmons as head of the Teamsters, figuring Hoffa would only attract additional scrutiny. The late Tony Pro is regarded as a suspect in the kidnapping and death of Hoffa, whose body has never turned up.

Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo

The reputed boss of New Jersey for decades, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo, who ran loansharking, illegal gambling and committed murder by his own admission, finally found himself sent up the river to federal prison in 1970. He got a 12-year stretch for extortion. Suffering from cancer, the imprisoned mobster applied to the federal government for early release. In late 1972, Nixon agreed to commute his sentence, supposedly to let the man out to see his family by Christmas. DeCarlo had to be carried out of prison on a stretcher.

Did the wiseguy bribe his way out? The explanation is less sinister. A plea for his release came from his good friend, the singer Frank Sinatra, who approached Vice President Spiro Agnew. By then, Sinatra had abandoned his liberal friends for Nixon. The next year, during Watergate, special prosecutor Archibald Cox investigated DeCarlo’s commutation, but could find no wrongdoing.

Stone and Fulsom

Some of the Nixon “Mob stories” are simply silly. For instance, Roger Stone – THAT Roger Stone, the political ally of President Donald Trump – insisted in 2013 that Congressman Nixon knew and even hired a “Jack Rubenstein” in 1947, the man who was actually Jack Ruby who later killed Kennedy’s alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963. This served to question whether Nixon had previous knowledge of the plot to assassinate JFK, which Roger Stone pins squarely on Lyndon Johnson. But reporters found out some time ago that the man was really another Jack Rubenstein, a textile union leader who died in 1989.

Richard Nixon in 1992. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Then there are the two books by author Don Fulsom. The Mafia’s President and Nixon’s Darkest Secret, on Nixon’s alleged Mob ties, which Fulsome posits included Nixon’s complicity in a plot to murder President Kennedy. Both books are mired in Fulsom’s insistence on long digressions about many debunked conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination that would even make JFK director Oliver Stone envious.

Fulsom believes, for instance, that Nixon knew about and took part in the conspiracy to assassinate Kennedy. He asserts that Nixon, who was in Dallas the day before the assassination to attend a Pepsi Cola convention, in reality traveled there to shore up the kill-the-president scheme with a top gangster.

“November 21: Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana meets with Nixon in Dallas to discuss the planned Kennedy assassination, Giancana later tells relatives…”

“November 24: With scores of police providing security and a national audience watching on television, onetime (and still?) Richard Nixon informant Jack Ruby shoots and kills Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police jail.”

Further, Fulsom often injects pure speculation and facts without corroboration. “Without massive contributions from his syndicate sponsors, [Nixon] might not have edged [Humphrey]. How much Mafia money financed Nixon’s 1968 bid? Estimates range from $400,000 to $2 million – much of it under the table and unreported.” How does Fulsom know this money was exchanged? He doesn’t say.

So, what to make of all of this? Nixon for sure was corrupt, paranoid, had larceny in his veins, was unscrupulous and committed many crimes as president. But actual proof of Mob associations, beyond rumor and speculation 25 years after his death at age 81, remain elusive. There’s lots more smoke than fire.

Jeff Burbank is content development specialist for The Mob Museum. He is the author of four books, including Las Vegas Babylon: True Tales of Glitter, Glamour, and Greed, License to Steal: Nevada’s Gaming Control System in the Megaresort Age and Lost Las Vegas. Contact him at jburbank@themobmuseum.org.