The Chicago Syndicate: Goodbye Fellas
The Mission Impossible Backpack

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Goodbye Fellas

Friends of ours: Joseph Valachi, Bugsy Siegal, Frank Sinatra, Sam Giancana, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Carlo Gambino, Paul Castellano, John Gotti

The perspective on organized crime that Thomas A. Reppetto developed from his career in law enforcement and more than 20 years as president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, tempered by a Harvard Ph.D., paid off handsomely in his 2004 book, “American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power,” which described the mob’s growth to its pinnacle in the mid-20th century. The writing was lucid, concise and devoid of sensationalism, rare qualities in the plethora of books by turncoat mobsters and their ex-wives, journalists, cops and aged Las Vegas insiders. This equally well-written sequel, “Bringing Down the Mob,” chronicles the Mafia’s near demise over the past 50 years. Following this specific thread of American history, general readers will benefit from Reppetto’s cogent examples of how changes in the culture at large affected both the mob itself and the tactics employed by law enforcement. Organized-crime buffs will be familiar with much of the material, but unaccustomed to seeing it assembled into so big and coherent a picture.

In 1950 and ’51, the Kefauver Senate committee’s televised hearings on the Mafia introduced mobsters into American living rooms, the lasting images being close-ups of Frank Costello’s manicured hands — he did not want his face on camera. The public outcry was short-lived and the Mafia cruised comfortably until 1957, when, in Apalachin, N.Y. (population 350), more than 60 Mafia notables attended a conference that was raided by the state police. As Reppetto says, the media have often presented the raid as “some hick cops stumbling on a mob conclave.” He debunks that interpretation and shows how the publicity moved the resistant J. Edgar Hoover to action, so that “from Apalachin on, the United States government was at war with the Mafia.”

As attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy led the next sustained attack on organized crime. He focused obsessively and successfully on Jimmy Hoffa, who was allied with the Mafia while serving as president of the two-million-member Teamsters union. Kennedy also brought before the TV cameras Joe Valachi, a low-level Mafia soldier who, with some coaching, provided extensive information “without revealing that much of it had been obtained through legally questionable electronic eavesdropping.” A new name for the Mafia emerged from the hearings — La Cosa Nostra — which allowed Hoover to say he had been right all along: there was no Mafia; there was a Cosa Nostra organization, exposed by the F.B.I.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Las Vegas provided a battlefield on which the F.B.I., armed with bugging equipment (and caught using it illegally in 1965), defeated the mob, which had been involved from the start of significant gambling in Nevada in the 1940s. Bugsy Siegel put up one of the first casinos on the Strip, the Flamingo. Las Vegas was designated an “open city,” in which any mob family could operate. As Reppetto writes, mobsters “secured Teamster loans to build casinos that they controlled through fronts, or ‘straw men.’ ” (Frank Sinatra lost his license as owner of a Nevada resort for allowing the Mafia boss Sam Giancana, reputedly his “hidden backer,” to frequent the hotel.) These casinos had overseers appointed by the controlling family to run “the skim,” cash siphoned off before the casino take was put on the books for tax purposes. The poorly chosen overseers played a large role in bringing down the mob in Las Vegas, generally being far too violent and unsophisticated to operate in a milieu that demanded a veneer of respectability. Reppetto points out the factual basis of much of Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese’s script for the film “Casino ,” including the chilling scene of Joe Pesci squeezing a victim’s head in a vise until an eye pops out (although that incident actually happened in Chicago). The mob’s management of Las Vegas turned out to be “a disaster,” Reppetto says. “Once it was the Mafia that was well run, while law enforcement plodded along. ... The situation was now reversed.” In the 1980s, corporations began to take control of the casinos.

One of the great hurdles the government had to clear at the start of its war on the Mafia, Reppetto says, was that the approach required to bring down a criminal organization ran “counter to general principles of American criminal justice”: “The usual practice, investigating a known crime in order to apprehend unknown culprits, was reversed. Now the government was investigating a known criminal to find crimes he might be charged with.” The most potent weapon was developed in 1970 — the RICO statute, to which Reppetto devotes a full chapter, pointing out that it took its creator, G. Robert Blakey, a decade of proselytizing before prosecutors would employ it.

A minor quibble: I think the book gives short shrift to the effect of the witness protection program, without which far fewer mobsters could have “flipped” over the years. As to Reppetto’s belief that the Mafia is in serious decline? At any time in the past, asking an average American to name major mob guys might well have elicited several of the following: Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Carlo Gambino, Paul Castellano, John Gotti. Who comes to mind today?

Thanks to Vincent Patrick whose novels include “The Pope of Greenwich Village” and “Smoke Screen.”

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