U.S. v. Hoffa: 1964
U.S. v. Hoffa: 1964
Defendants: James R. Hoffa
Crimes Charged: First trial: jury tampering; Second trial: mail and wire fraud, conspiracy
Chief Defense Lawyers: First trial: Harry Berke, James Haggerty, Jacques Schiffer, and Harvey Silets; Second trial: Daniel Ahearn, James Haggerty, and Maurice Walsh.
Chief Prosecutors: First trial: John Hooker and James Neal; Second trial: William Bittman and Charles Smith
Judges: First trial: Frank W. Wilson; Second trial: Richard B. Austin
Places: First trial: Chattanooga, Tennessee; Second trial: Chicago, Illinois
Dates of Trial: First trial: January 20-March 12, 1964; second trial: May 11-August 17, 1964.
Verdicts: Guilty, both trials
Sentences: First trial: 8 years imprisonment and $10,000 fine; second trial: four concurrent five-year terms
SIGNIFICANCE: U.S. Department of Justice prosecutions of union leader Jimmy Hoffa gave the nation a series of sensational corruption trials and a debate over the acceptable limits to which the government should investigate an individual.
The U.S. government's attempts to curtail the influence of organized crime in labor unions by prosecuting International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa failed for nearly a decade. By the time Hoffa finally went to prison, numerous trials had cost both sides a great deal of money and arguments over the ethics of the government's pursuit of Hoffa were commonplace.
The genesis of the Hoffa trials lay in the investigative work of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field. During the late 1950s, the so-called McClellan Committee (chaired by Arkansas Senator John G. McClellan) put crooked union leaders, crime bosses, common thugs, and their victims before the public in televised hearings. Many of the most contentious exchanges took place between the committee's chief counsel, Robert F. Kennedy, and the feisty Hoffa, who was in line for the presidency of the powerful Teamsters union.
Even as the hearings began, Hoffa was indicted for illegal possession of McClellan Committee documents. Hoffa had allegedly handed attorney John Cye Cheasty $1,000 and promised thousands more if he would infiltrate the committee to obtain information. Instead, Cheasty revealed the bribery attempt to committee counsel Kennedy, who arranged to have Cheasty pass a list of
witnesses to Hoffa while FBI cameras rolled.
A reporter asked Kennedy what he would do if Hoffa was not convicted. "I'll jump off the Capital dome," replied Kennedy, who was convinced that the filmed transaction gave the Justice Department a perfect case. When the trial ended with a hung jury, Teamsters attorney Edward Bennett Williams offered to send Kennedy a parachute. The growth of a mutual animosity between Kennedy and Hoffa was clear to an entire nation watching their public feud.
"Get-Hoffa Squad" Assembled
Robert Kennedy was appointed U.S. attorney general in 1960 by the newly elected president, his brother John F. Kennedy. Indicting Jimmy Hoffa was a high priority with the new attorney general, who claimed that Hoffa used extortion, bribery, and physical violence to rule the Teamsters. Robert Kennedy was equally sure that Hoffa used the threat of labor trouble to bully employers for personal profit. A small Justice Department unit of lawyers and investigators, informally known as the "Get-Hoffa Squad," was assembled to uncover and prosecute any unlawful activity within organized labor. By the time they disbanded, their conviction rate was impressive.
Yet Robert Kennedy's campaign against union corruption, and Hoffa in particular, raised questions about the role of an attorney general in prosecuting crimes. The constant investigations resembled a vendetta to those who suspected Kennedy's motives. Some thought the attorney general was dogging Hoffa out of personal spite. Others questioned the ethics of the nation's chief law enforcement officer aggressively investigating an individual before evidence of wrongdoing presented itself.
Civil libertarians were concerned by Hoffa's never-proven but steady protests that he was a victim of illegal surveillance and paid government perjurers. The debate also included his union cronies, politicians under his control, and enemies of the Kennedys, all of whom exploited the situation.
One of the first major indictments against Hoffa focused on a Florida real estate development called Sun Valley. Federal prosecutors knew that Hoffa and others had secretly loaned union money to finance the project and secured further loans from local banks by promising them large union accounts. Sun Valley was promoted as a sunny retirement community for union members. In fact, Hoffa and his associate Owen Bert Brennan held an option to buy 45 percent of the development. By risking union funds, Hoffa and Brennan stood to make personal fortunes if the development proved successful.
Instead, Sun Valley remained an undeveloped disaster area. Hoffa was indicted for mail fraud and conspiracy, but the indictments were dismissed in 1961 when a Florida judge ruled that the grand jury issuing them had been improperly impaneled (a second set of indictments was approved but dropped as investigators incorporated their evidence into Hoffa's 1964 Chicago fraud trial).
Hoffa was next indicted for violating the Taft-Hartley Act, which prohibits employee representatives from accepting illegal payoffs from employers. The government charged that a Michigan trucking firm, Commercial Carriers, had organized a Nashville, Tennessee, business called Test Fleet for the sole purpose of avoiding labor trouble with Hoffa's union. As soon as the new business was incorporated—in the maiden names of Hoffa's and Brennan's wives—Commercial Carriers leased all of Test Fleet's trucks and assumed all of their operating expenses, making the venture's income a pure profit for its "owners."
Hoffa claimed that putting the business in his wife's name was a legal tax move. The 1962 case ended with a mistrial when jurors could not agree on a verdict. Yet Hoffa and five others were immediately indicted for tampering with the jury. The new case was moved to Chattanooga, Tennessee, in early 1964 when Hoffa's attorney was arrested (and ultimately convicted) for trying to bribe a police officer into offering a prospective juror $10,000 to ensure another hung jury.
The most damaging witness in the Chattanooga trial was Ed Partin, a Teamster officer and government informant. Partin had secretly told investigators that Hoffa had spoken to him about killing Robert Kennedy. Prosecutors were wary of Partin's motives and credibility, for he was under indictment for embezzlement in Louisiana. They nevertheless decided to trust him after he passed a lie detector test.
Partin's presence in Chattanooga was kept a secret until the moment he walked to the witness stand. As Hoffa visibly paled, Partin recalled the union president speaking in detail about how the Nashville jury had been tainted.
The defense protested that the government had placed Partin in the midst of the Hoffa camp to violate Hoffa's rights by spying for prosecutors in the Test Fleet case. The government noted that Hoffa himself had invited Partin to Nashville and that Partin's information has prompted investigations that led to the present trial only. "That son-of-a-bitch is killing us!" Hoffa shouted at his lawyers outside the courtroom.
Hoffa's lawyers fiercely cross-examined Partin about his own criminal record and tried to suppress his testimony, accusing him of being a paid government informer (prosecutors denied this). The defense grew abrasive, accusing the Justice Department of stealing union documents and accusing Judge Frank W. Wilson of bias in favor of the government. The judge kept his composure in spite of apparent attempts to prod him into losing his temper and forcing a mistrial.
Federal prosecutor James Neal called the bribery conspiracy "one of the greatest assaults on the jury system the country has ever known." Neal might have said the same thing about the current trial, for amazing stratagems were being used to force a mistrial. Defense lawyers eavesdropped on the jury room. Bribed bellhops falsely swore that the sequestered jurors were drunk.
Hoffa's attorney, James Haggerty, called the government's case "a foul and filthy frame-up" designed by the "Get-Hoffa Squad." Defense attorney Jacques Schiffer threw a handful of coins at government prosecutors. "Take these thirty pieces of silver and share them—you have earned them."
While two of his co-defendants were acquitted, Hoffa and three others were found guilty. "You stand here convicted of seeking to corrupt the administration of justice itself," Judge Wilson told Hoffa before sentencing him to eight years in prison and fining him $10,000. Defense attorney Schiffer was sentenced to 60 days in prison for contempt.
Two months later, Hoffa went on trial in Chicago, Illinois, for fraud and conspiracy. Prosecutors charged that he and seven co-defendants had approved $20 million in loans from the Teamsters pension fund to real-estate developers. In returns, the developers paid $1.7 million in kickbacks when the loans were approved. The scheme was originated to pay off Sun Valley's creditors. The Chicago trial, however, revealed that Hoffa and the others had not restricted their activity to repaying the union's hidden loss in the Florida fiasco.
After 13 weeks of complex testimony, Hoffa was found guilty on four of the 20 counts against him. Judge Richard B. Austin sentenced him to five years imprisonment on each count, to run concurrently after he finished the eight-year jury-tampering sentence.
Hoffa appealed all the way to the Supreme Court without success. He entered a federal penitentiary in 1967 and served five years before President Richard Nixon commuted his sentence in 1972.
Hoffa paid minimal attention to a condition of his parole forbidding involvement in any union activities until 1980. He disappeared in Detroit, Michigan, on July 30, 1975, and was presumed to have been murdered. His body has never been found.
The Hoffa name did not disappear from the ranks of the Teamsters when Jimmy Hoffa vanished. His son, James Hoffa, a Detroit lawyer, ran for the presidency of the union in 1996, but was narrowly defeated by Ron Carrey. However, Carrey was forced out of the presidency after a federal investigation revealed that his campaign had benefited from illegal fund-raising schemes. James Hoffa ran again in 1998 and was easily elected to head the union his father had once made so powerful.
—Thomas C. Smith
Suggestions for Further Reading
Kennedy, Robert F. The Enemy Within. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960.
Navasky, Victor S. Kennedy Justice. New York: Atheneum, 1971.
Sheridan, Walter. The Fall And Rise of Jimmy Hoffa. New York: Saturday Review Books, 1972.