Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012 | 2 a.m.
On Nov. 15, 1950 — 62 years ago — the Kefauver committee stopped in Las Vegas for one of several hearings exploring organized crime in America.
The U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, as the Kefauver committee was officially known, met in 14 cities. The Las Vegas hearing took place in the courthouse that today serves as the home of the Mob Museum.
The Kefauver hearings, so dubbed for the committee chairman, Sen. Estes Kefauver, were broadcast live on television and introduced much of the American public, including a young Robert Blakey, to organized crime.
Tuesday evening at the Mob Museum, Blakey — now a law professor at Notre Dame University — gave a lecture on his role in crafting new statutes to help combat organized crime. He explained that after World War II, televisions were multiplying and the Kefauver hearings made for great drama. Blakey, a teenager at the time, watched the hearings intently.
Mobster Frank Costello refused to have his face shown during his testimony, so the cameras focused on his hands. Dubbed the “prime minister of the underworld,” he later walked out on the proceedings.
Blakey wanted to become a labor lawyer but was offered a job with the U.S. Department of Justice. With a wife and child, he decided it was best to take the job on the table rather than hope for something more in tune with his original aspirations. It turned out to be a career-defining decision.
“They put me in what was called the labor rights unit in organized crime. (The media) called it the 'get Hoffa' division,” he said, referring to Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters organizer who in 1964 was convicted of fraud, bribery and jury tampering.
Blakey was hired shortly before John F. Kennedy won the presidency. Kennedy installed his brother Robert as attorney general, and the government took a more aggressive approach to organized crime.
A decade after the Kefauver hearings, some in the government still wore blinders to organized crime, Blakey said. During one of his first days on the job in 1960, Blakey asked his immediate superior if there really was organized crime, a mafia, in America.
“’No, there’s no mafia,’” Blakey said the deputy director for organized crime told him. “’There are loose associations in places, but there is no mafia.’”
Then, in 1963, the commission on organized crime released a report that showed the mafia had “tentacles everywhere,” Blakey said.
Blakey was charged with merging two bills proposed in Congress into the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, now commonly known as the RICO Act, which became law in 1970.
Before RICO, the top rungs of crime organizations frequently escaped with relatively light sentences, as a boss who gave the order for a murder could not be charged with murder.
Prosecutors would get creative. Blakey recalled the time Joey “Doves” Aiuppa was convicted of violating the migratory bird act in 1966 after FBI agents in Kansas searching Aiuppa's car discovered 563 frozen doves. The alleged leader of the Chicago Outfit, Aiuppa received a three-month jail sentence and a $1,000 fine. Al Capone was famously convicted for tax evasion.
Yet, even after RICO’s passage, prosecutors did not make use of the law regularly until a decade later.
“No prosecutor wanted to be the first to use the law and risk messing up their case,” Blakey said. “That’s just the way it is with new laws.”
Blakey also drafted the laws regarding wiretapping and shared some of the growing pains of using the new technology. At first, federal agents ignored wiretap conversations when the targets spoke in Italian, until they realized that was everything they wanted to know.
“They bugged these guys from 8 in the morning to 5 at night, and they came back and said, ‘These guys don’t do anything,'” Blakey said, referring to electronic surveillance of a suspected gambling ring. “Well, someone had to explain to them that they get up around 2 or 3 in the afternoon and they go until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
It may have taken two decades to pass the RICO Act and another decade to start using it, but the Kefauver hearings of 1950 mark the beginning of the United States coming to grips with the presence of organized crime and eventually led to more tools for law enforcement, Blakey said.
To celebrate the Kefauver hearing anniversary, the museum is offering free admission to Nevada residents. Special programming starts at 10 a.m. and includes highlights of a new hourlong documentary about the Kefauver committee hearings, “Crimebuster: Senator Estes Kefauver, Politics, Television and Organized Crime,” by filmmaker Jon Rubin.; a proclamation by Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman declaring Nov. 15 Kefauver Day, which will be presented to Diane Kefauver, daughter of former U.S. Sen. Estes Kefauver; and a courtroom presentation to area school students about the Kefauver committee hearings, followed by a museumwide educational scavenger hunt. Additionally, museum members will have the opportunity to attend the premiere of the entire documentary film by Rubin at 7 p.m.
A Q&A with filmmaker Rubin and Diane Kefauver will follow the film screening. Space is limited and reservations are recommended.