James Neff, Vendetta: Bobby Kennedy versus Jimmy Hoffa, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2015), 340 pages $28.00
In Vendetta journalist James Neff narrates the nearly ten year legal battle between Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) and Teamsters union boss James Riddle Hoffa that ended when Hoffa finally went to prison in 1967. Neff’s book retells a story told by many before him, but unsettled controversies allow new evidence and more interpretation of a long running debate. Were Hoffa and the Teamsters union a combination of evil and corruption taken over by gangsters, as Kennedy believed? Or did RFK use government authority to carry on a personal vendetta against Hoffa? Did politics subvert the law?
The book opens with a brief prologue to introduce readers to the two combatants by telling where they were and what they said after hearing the awful news of November 22, 1963. The sixteen chapters and brief epilogue that follow tells the story of RFK interrogating Hoffa as chief counsel of Senator John McClellan’s Select Committee on Improper Activities in the Labor or Management Field – a.k.a. the McClellan Committee or the Rackets Committee - and then the second half of the story as Attorney General Robert Kennedy pursued his suspicion of Hoffa corruption with more indictments and finally two convictions.
Rackets Committee hearings started February 26, 1957 that included close to 300 days of testimony from 1,526 witnesses including repeated Hoffa appearances. RFK resigned from the Rackets Committee in September 1959 to run John Kennedy’s presidential campaign and partly from frustration since Hoffa survived the longest congressional investigation in history with a hundred government lawyers, investigators, accountants, and support staff providing evidence that failed to convict him of separate bribery, perjury and wiretapping charges. After John Kennedy was elected President and RFK became Attorney General, he resumed a relentless pursuit of Hoffa by setting up a special unit known as the “Get Hoffa Squad” intended to prosecute him and send him to prison.
Neff takes readers back and forth between RFK and Hoffa to fill in biographical and background material on union negotiating and politics of the 1950’s, but only as support for the primary narrative and the ethical and constitutional rights conflicts they illustrate. Narrative includes some discussion of Hoffa as a popular labor leader and Teamsters president who cared about his members and negotiated favorable contracts with better pay and benefits. Organized crime is also part of the story, as it has to be with Jimmy Hoffa.
An early one of the numerous conflicts in the Hoffa-Kennedy battles came soon after the Rackets Committee opened hearings, which Neff devotes an entire chapter to covering. Hoffa hired an attorney John Cheasty to spy on the Rackets Committee after getting a job as an investigator for the committee. Cheasty turned informer to Kennedy and then helped to conduct an FBI sting. On March 13, 1957 the FBI filmed Hoffa accepting an envelop of documents in exchange for a wad of cash in front of a Du Pont Circle hotel in Washington. He was arrested and indicted for bribery. In the famous press quote Kennedy told reporters he would jump off the capital if Hoffa was acquitted.
Hoffa’s attorney Edward Bennett Williams learned that RFK shared committee investigation reports with news reporters to help his committee get daily news coverage and advance stories favorable to Kennedy. During the trial Williams questioned how investigative reports given to Hoffa could be confidential if RFK handed them over to favored reporters.
Then Hoffa took the stand in his own defense and admitted he hired Cheasty, but as his lawyer to assist preparing for the committee hearings. Williams asked Hoffa if he knew how Cheasty got the documents. Hoffa testified “I got it from a fellow who is writing an article for the press. … It’s old material and it has been released to the press.”
RFK took a lot of ridicule when Hoffa was acquitted. Edward Bennett William’s complained that RFK turned a case into a personal competition. “He divided everyone up. There were the white hats and the black hats. If you weren’t for him, then you were against him. There was no middle ground.”
Neff covers the hearings and the charges that flowed from them, but Rackets committee evidence did not bring convictions. In March of 1964 after seven years and five trials of hung juries or acquittals it took the authority and unlimited money and power of the Justice Department to get a conviction for jury tampering growing out of petty misdemeanor claims from a conflict of interest violation of the Taft-Hartley Law. Fifteen years before in 1949 Hoffa established a truck leasing business in Nashville, Tennessee, the Test Fleet Corporation. Test Fleet leased trucks to some Teamsters employers. To Hoffa it was like a GM executive investing in a gas station, but RFK was so intent on getting Hoffa convicted of something a trial went forward in Nashville based on conflict of interest. Kennedy’s obsession with Hoffa left him oblivious to the damage he was doing to organized labor.
Evidence that Hoffa, or Teamsters operatives, attempted to bribe jurors in the Test Fleet case brought more serious charges in another trial in Chattanooga. This time Hoffa was convicted of jury tampering. As one attorney summed it up Hoffa turned a misdemeanor charge into a felony conviction.
Neff covers the Test Fleet trials thoroughly and then briefly covers a second indictment and conviction over the misuse of funds from the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund, but Neff ends the story here. He takes a few more pages to wrap up the appeals process, going to prison, the Nixon pardon, Hoffa’s disputes with his successor Frank Fitzsimmons and the Hoffa disappearance on July 30, 1975.
The adversarial nature of some congressional hearings often raises questions of constitutional rights as it does with the Hoffa case. The Rackets Committee claimed the right to interrogate Hoffa and many others on the chance that some of them had committed a crime. Instead constitutional rights suggest there should be probable cause before the government investigates, which should be based on good assurance a crime had already occurred. Americans should not be expected to claim their Fifth Amendment rights without a criminal charge against them.
Vendetta reads easily in journalistic style while avoiding the potential for sanctimonious moralizing. It is well documented and makes reference to the many previous books and articles on Kennedy’s fight with Hoffa. The book has more to say about American criminal law and politics than it does about the two men; the book is not a biography of either one, or both. As with all books on the subject, Vendetta gives a clearer picture of Kennedy overreach than it does for Hoffa. The Mafia presence makes it hard to decide how much Hoffa controlled, or how much the Mafia controlled him. I find the evidence on Hoffa falls short and prevents drawing definitive conclusions about him: the correct mix of bad and good. He disappeared and the story ended and nearly everyone blames the Mafia; they’re not called the underworld for nothing.