Friday, November 15, 2013

Fighting the Mob, Welcoming Mobs

Michael S. Green

Today thousands of Las Vegans and tourists will line up to go to a museum, thanks to Senator Estes
Frank Costello testifying before the Kefauver Committee, 1951.
Kefauver of Tennessee; a mayor who used to represent mobsters; and federal officials who proved more Las Vegan than Las Vegans.

The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement, known as the Mob Museum, opened in Las Vegas on February 14, 2012, on a carefully chosen date: the anniversary of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. In 1929, in Chicago, Al Capone’s hoodlums executed several members of the gangs led by Scarface’s rival, Bugs Moran. The museum has the wall, complete with bullet holes and bloodstains.

Las Vegas seems like a logical place for this museum, since casino operators associated with the mob built and ran many of the resorts that dotted the Strip from the 1940s into the 1980s. Many continue to think it all began with Bugsy Siegel—or perhaps Warren Beatty—opening the Flamingo in 1946. Although the idea was somebody else’s, Siegel took over the construction and proved to be a lousy businessman, and he died before his dream had become a profit center for his mob-associated investors.

Las Vegas also turned out to be the epicenter for targeting crime families. The passage of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (the felicitously named RICO, as in Edward G. Robinson’s character in the 1931 film Little Caesar) and the expansion of Justice Department activities helped make possible the prosecution of major organized crime figures, including the leaders of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and Kansas City mobs. The federal government also targeted their connections at the Teamsters Union and its Central States Pension Fund, including Allen Dorfman, who oversaw the fund that made loans to Las Vegas casino operators and was a Jimmy Hoffa ally and the stepson of a Capone lieutenant.

State officials also stepped up efforts to clean up Nevada’s image and major industry. More and deeper investigations and the expansion of the Black Book or List of Excluded Persons, which bars those suspected of mob ties from even entering casinos, helped drive out the operators of several Strip and downtown casinos.

By the late 1990s, Las Vegas and its gaming industry had gone corporate. Some residents saw this as a shame, recalling the city as safer during the mob’s heyday (since mobsters actually ran street rackets, this was a myth) and missing the smaller casinos with cheaper food. Others welcomed the change and hoped to sweep the past under the rug.

Then, the federal government decided to shutter the city’s first federal building, erected in 1933. Newer structures had made it obsolete, and almost every federal office housed there had relocated. Amid plans to raze it, in a reversal of the usual claim that Las Vegas blows up its history, Mayor Oscar Goodman sought to save it. As a young lawyer, he had argued his first case there, and went on to become one of the nation’s most prominent attorneys for those accused of being part of organized crime.

Seeking something connected to Las Vegas, not to mention marketable, Goodman proposed a museum about the mob. Making the case for him, on November 15, 1950, Kefauver had held one of his hearings about organized crime in the building’s second-floor courtroom. Kefauver listened to mobsters complain about how difficult their lives were and marveled that one of the casino owners served on the state Tax Commission, which regulated his industry, while the lieutenant governor co-owned several casinos. He concluded, “As a case history of legalized gambling, Nevada speaks eloquently in the negative.”

Part of the festivities at the museum include showing a documentary about Kefauver by his daughter, Diane Kefauver, and son-in-law, Jon Rubin: Crimebuster:  Senator Estes Kefauver, Politics, Television, and Organized Crime. Kefauver had several motivations for going after the mob. He was indeed a moral reformer. He hated political machines, having won his Senate seat by overcoming the corrupt Crump machine in Memphis in 1948. And as Russell Baker of the New York Times described him, “He was an egghead masquerading as a yokel and what he wanted was the Presidency. For six years, with little more than a coonskin cap and the stamina of a drayhorse, he kept the most skillful politicians of the Democratic party in a nightmare.”

The idea for Kefauver to conduct the hearings came from Phil Graham, the Washington Post publisher and political backroom operator, who shared Kefauver’s distaste for gambling and organized crime. The hearings, held in fourteen cities and nationally televised in 1950 and 1951, helped lead to reforms and anti-gambling efforts in several areas.

For Las Vegas, Kefauver actually proved to be a boon. With casinos closing elsewhere, Nevada became a diaspora for casino executives and employees, mob or not. He also made it possible for Las Vegas to open a museum that remembers the violence and dangers—and occasional successes—of organized crime, and how politicians and law enforcement fought it and sometimes became intertwined with it. As befits modern Las Vegas, the museum is large, filled with bells and whistles, and costs some money to get into. On Kefauver Day, November 15, befitting old Las Vegas, it’s a comp: free admission.

Michael S. Green is a professor of history at the College of Southern Nevada and the author of several books on Nevada as well as on the Civil War era. He was a researcher for the museum, and serves on its advisory board and content committee.

1 comment:

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Thanks for this--it is a great example of how we can remember something we tend to see as negative without glamorizing it. I would like to see more reviews of museums by historians....