By Allan May
Starting in May 1950, America experienced the Kefauver Committee Hearings. Officially named the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce, this crime investigating committee, headed by Tennessee Democratic Senator Estes Kefauver, turned into the hottest show on television. The committee, which traveled to fourteen cities, focused largely on gambling activity and illegal casinos. Week after week, city after city, the road show continued. For people who didn’t own a television, retailers placed TV sets in display windows and piped the audio outside so viewers could follow the daytime crime-fighting drama. Bars and restaurants also had their televisions tuned-in to both the afternoon and evening sessions for their patrons to watch.
The committee’s last scheduled stop was New York in mid-March 1951. Then committee members returned to Washington DC where, according to Kefauver, some “important witnesses from the government and odds and ends from the underworld (were) due to appear.” Included in those “odds and ends” were two members of the Cleveland Syndicate – Morris Kleinman and Louis Rothkopf.
Joseph Nellis, a counsel of the committee, had gone to Cleveland in December 1950, a month before the hearings were to begin, with the subpoenas that were to be issued. The task of serving the subpoenas was divided between the United States marshal’s office and Safety Director Alvin J. Sutton, Jr. (See my column August 16, 1999). Cleveland law enforcement officials were successful in serving all but 12 of the 65 subpoenas. Among the witnesses that had avoided being served were the four leaders of the Cleveland Syndicate – Kleinman, Rothkopf, Moe Dalitz, and Sammy Tucker. Dalitz and Tucker would testify before the committee when hearings were held in Los Angeles during February 1951.
Two days before the scheduled televised hearings in Washington, Senator Alexander Wiley of Wisconsin, a member of the committee, proposed controls over television coverage of the hearings. The senator was concerned that the hearings were turning into:
“A three ring circus. A fourth rate style production with hamming and phony theatrics. An unjust inquisition of people under klieg lights, particularly people who might not be able to testify under such conditions…”
In Wiley’s statement he claimed that on Monday he would introduce a bill calling for a study of past and proposed televising, filming, and picture taking “of proceedings of the congress and its respective committees.” However, despite what Wiley had already witnessed during the long months of hearings it was nothing compared to what he was about to experience.
On Monday evening, March 26, 1951 television sets across the nation were tuned into the “Kefauver Show.” Abner “Longy” Zwillman of New Jersey would be the first scheduled witness that evening and would be followed by Kleinman and Rothkopf.
In the Cleveland area alone, a viewing audience of two to three million were expected to watch the broadcast over television station WXEL at 9:30 p.m. In the bars along Short Vincent Street, groups gathered as bartenders “fiddled” with television knobs to ready their sets for the highly anticipated testimony from the Cleveland duo. Radios kept the listeners abreast of the testimony of Zwillman until the hearings finally crackled across television screens in Cleveland. The Kefauver Committee members were still questioning the New Jersey mobster, who the newspapers the next day reported was a “telegenic hit.” Although he had small support groups on Short Vincent rooting for him, there was little doubt that the Cleveland audience was getting ready for the appearance of the hometown boys.
When the questioning of Zwillman was completed, Kleinman took the stand. The committee had their questions prepared – inquiries into both his and Rothkopf’s gambling interests in Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, and Las Vegas. Kleinman began by reading from a prepared statement:
“I am not an actor and have had no public speaking training. I would be much like an amateur appearing at a disadvantage in front of you who have become like professionals.
Newspapers said this was bigger than the World Series. A cartoon in the Cleveland Press suggested that my television debut might replace Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
From newspapers I can demand a retraction or sue for libel. I cannot check on what is happening to me on television or radio.
If the television industry wants me to boost their sales I am entitled to be consulted.
This is a violation of my constitutional rights. I will not perform to help TV. I will not proceed further until this apparatus is shut off and removed.”
Kefauver responded, “We couldn’t find you in Cleveland. If we had you wouldn’t have been exposed to this. Do you want the television shut off?”
“I want everything off,” Kleinman growled.
The committee had been trying to serve a subpoena on the two men since December 1950. Kleinman refused to answer questions on his whereabouts during these past three months even though he was assured the television cameras were no longer on him. He then would neither confirm nor deny that he had been convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison in 1933.
Committee Counsel Joseph L. Nellis began to ask questions. Was Kleinman a partner in the Covington, Kentucky, Look Out Club, which is across the river from Cincinnati, Ohio?
Was Kleinman a partner in the Beverly Hills County Club, which was also located in northern Kentucky?
Nellis then produced a card that stated that the Beverly Hills Country Club would open near Southgate, Kentucky, on April 1, the day after the committee was to end its investigation.
Kleinman sat mute.
“Let the record show that the witness is silent,” Kefauver stated.
Senator Charles W. Tobey, a member of the committee, lashed out at Kleinman, “You sat right there behind the other witness for an hour and a half, and you never blinked. Then you come up here and as soon as questions are asked of you, you quail before the lights. It makes me sick to see you try to put up this bluff. Good Lord, no honest man would do that. Before we’re through, sir, you’ll come to the bar of justice.”
When Kleinman had still not responded, Senator Tobey exploded, “I move that this man be arrested and held in $10,000 bond.”
Kefauver stated that the arrest would be unnecessary because Kleinman and Rothkopf were already under arrest for not accepting the subpoenas in Cleveland. Kefauver then ordered Kleinman remanded to the Sergeant-at-arms of the Senate, Joseph C. Duke. He was ordered jailed until he could appear on Friday morning, unless he could post a $10,000 bail.
Louis Rothkopf took the stand next and read a statement to the same affect as Kleinman’s. When he too refused to answer questions, Kefauver allowed the television lights to be turned back on and committee members asked Rothkopf about the same gambling connections they had asked Kleinman. Refusing to speak, Rothkopf was then ordered detained under the same conditions that had been issued to his Cleveland Syndicate partner. Tobey ordered the arrest proclaiming Rothkopf had, “made fools of the committee long enough.”
The committee had run into many rebellious witnesses during the almost now year-long hearings. Most of the witnesses simply stated that they refused to answer the questions of the group. For the first time the committee had two defiant witnesses who refused to even refuse to answer questions.
Tuesday morning’s Chicago Daily Tribune headlines screamed out, “SENATORS DEFIED, HOLD TWO.” The same day the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported:
“Judging from the reaction of a coterie of acquaintances, if not pals, Morris Kleinman and Lou Rothkopf of Cleveland, a pair of reputed money baggers for the gambling casinos, were entertainment duds last night when most Cleveland television sets were turned to the Senate crime session in Washington.”
On Friday morning the Senate, without a dissenting vote, cited Kleinman, Rothkopf, and ten others for contempt of Congress for refusing to answer the crime committee’s questions. The two were in impressive company. Among the other men cited were Jake “Greasy Thumb” Guzik of Chicago, and Joe Adonis, Frank Costello, and Frank Erickson of New York. The maximum penalty for the offense was one year in prison and a $1,000 fine on each count. Since a count consists of one refusal to answer a question, and some witnesses refused to answer as many as one hundred, some of the mobsters were looking at significant fines.
Facing prison terms and fines if convicted, Kleinman and Rothkopf received help from an unlikely source. Washington State Senator Harry P. Cain went “to bat” for the two Cleveland Syndicate members. Calling for a reconsideration of the Senate contempt citation against them, the senator denounced the televised hearings as “television extravaganza tactics.”
In an eleven page speech made on August 10, 1951, Cain said that, “the Clevelanders were victims of a wave of emotion over which they had no control.” The senator stated:
“I was disturbed and shocked by the manner in which they were treated. I was reminded of what I assume a people’s court in any totalitarian country must be. I saw no effort to get at the truth.”
Cain also read a quote from a magazine article that appeared three years earlier in which Kefauver spoke out against “headline-hunting congressional hearings,” and “vaudeville shows.” Cain said, “It is not for me to judge what the senator from Tennessee has been up to during the past year. What he is or wants to be is his own business.” The latter statement had apparently been aimed at recent rumors that Kefauver had been bucking for a vice presidential nomination.
Kleinman and Rothkopf’s contempt of Congress charges were later overturned in court. Senator Estes Kefauver resigned as chairman of the committee and in 1956 was the Democratic nominee for vice president. He and Adlai Stevenson failed to unseat incumbents Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon in that year’s presidential election.
Copyright A. R. May 2000