Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Was Sinatra a Front Man for the Boston Mob?

 by Don L. Stradley
Frank Sinatra: Mob ties?
Frank Sinatra never dreamed that a two-bit Boston hoodlum would create more problems for him than Ava Gardner and Lauren Bacall combined. 

But anyone who knew Boston’s Joe Barboza wasn't surprised.  Joe “The Animal,” (AKA "The Baron") was determined to bring down as many Italians as he could. He'd worked for Boston mobsters for years as a hired gun, and felt he'd never been treated fairly. Now he was turning evidence against anyone whose name ended in a vowel. Why not bring down the biggest Italian of them all?

It was 1972, and Barboza, already under the witness protection program after ratting out a number of his associates, was before the House Select Committee on Crime. The subject was Providence crime boss Raymond Patriarca.

The congressional committee was investigating organized crime's influence on professional sports, and Barboza was brought in from an unnamed Gloucester compound to testify. Of course, he was being guarded by 15 feds armed with machine guns -- whispers of a $300,000 contract on Barboza's head made everyone a bit nervous -- but the committee's favorite canary was happily singing again.

Speaking with a cigarette bobbing in his mouth, Barboza testified that Patriarca and the Providence "outfit" was very active in sports.  Barboza created a round of controversy when he named former Boston Celtic stars Bob Cousy, Babe Parelli, and Gene Conley, all in connection with mob betting on professional basketball games.

The mob’s main interest, though, was horse racing.

Barboza claimed to have once collected $5,500 a week in "juice" - interest payments on loans - totaling $70,000.  Among Barboza's juice victims were New England jockeys who followed orders of the crime syndicate in certain races. Race fixing had been a lucrative business for the New England mob going back decades.
Joe Barboza: "A bum running off at the mouth."

Under questioning by committee chief counsel Joseph A. Phillips, Barboza testified that half the race horses in New England were owned by front men for syndicate mobsters. Then, like a man casually flipping a lit match into a puddle of gasoline, Barboza mentioned that Frank Sinatra, possibly the most famous entertainer of the century, had "fronted" for New England crime czar Patriarca.

Phillips would later say that Barboza's comments came so unexpectedly that they could not have been anticipated or cut off.

According to Barboza, Sinatra held Patriarca's concealed financial interest in The Sands, a Las Vegas hotel casino, and in the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. The Fontainebleau immediately filed an affidavit with the committee denying the story, but Barboza’s testimony stuck in the minds of the committee.

It made sense.
Sinatra, a shareholder in The Sands, had briefly been the vice president of Berkshire Downs racetrack in Hancock, Massachusetts. The committee had information that Patriarca held a hidden interest in the track at the same time Sinatra was involved. Berkshire Downs happened to be one of the tracks under investigation for rigged races.

Sinatra was soon subpoenaed to appear before the committee. Rep. Morgan Murphy, D-HL, a member of the committee, said Sinatra was called in to "give him an opportunity to clear himself.”

Barboza's naming of Sinatra could have been seen as a move born of desperation, a bit of last minute mud slinging at his enemies. But in fact, it was one of his most inspired bits of ratting.  Barboza felt the Italians of the Boston mob had not appreciated his years of loyalty. He’d killed for them, but when he needed their help, they left him to rot. He began naming names. For Italians in Boston, Sinatra was a beacon.

Barboza had probably been in some of the old North End men's clubs, those run-down storefronts that had been converted into headquarters for low ranking wiseguys. When the wiseguys were all imprisoned or dead, these meeting places were turned into dank little rooms where old Italians played cards and drank black coffee. The rooms, no matter how ramshackle, always had a few standby pieces of decoration: an old radio pumping in Italian-American love songs, an Italian flag on one wall, and a picture of Sinatra on the other.

Smiling down from the wall with his large teeth and shifty eyes, Sinatra provided smalltime wiseguys with not only a swinging soundtrack, but also a lifestyle to copy. A reporter gets in your face? Punch him. Your girlfriend talks too much? Dump the bitch. Some comedian makes a joke about you? Have some goons rough him up. That was Sinatra.  Don't just burn bridges; blow 'em up.
Sinatra had been accused of mob ties since his days with Tommy Dorsey's band. He had a well-known friendship with Chicago crime boss Sam Giancana, and the FBI had a Sinatra file that totaled more than 2,400 pages. Still, Sinatra denied any mob contacts; he blamed the FBI's suspicion on nothing but unfair ethnic stereotyping. Had he been Irish, Sinatra charged, there would never be any questions of him being linked to organized crime.

But when his name was mentioned by Barboza as a mob front, it brought him back into the headlines with a flourish. The Sinatra of 1972 was a "retired entertainer," having given a farewell performance in June 1971. Now, people anticipated his court appearance as an opportunity to see him once again. Some of the newspapers wrote it up as if he was simply making another of his many comebacks.
But first he had to be found.

US marshals approached Sinatra's California home but were not admitted. The fortress- like mansion was surrounded by a wall.

A few days later, the marshals tried to serve Sinatra with the subpoena in the Madison Hotel in Washington, but he'd gone to Baltimore to attend a gala honoring Vice President Spiro Agnew. One of Sinatra's aids implored the marshals to not embarrass Sinatra in front of Agnew, so the subpoena was not served in Baltimore.

By now, Sinatra's admirers were phoning in drunken death threats to Rep. Claude Pepper (D, Fla.), the chairman of the Committee on Crime. Pepper told Washington columnist Virgina Weldon Kelly that there were no plans to embarrass anyone, but that Sinatra "is an American citizen. It is the duty of a good citizen to help preserve the rights of all good citizens."

Sinatra finally responded, but it was through Senator Tunney of California. As a celebrity and constituent, Sinatra said, he didn't want to be subpoenaed and would rather testify in executive session.

A meeting was set for June 8, 1972. Sinatra remained missing.
Sinatra's attorney, Melton Rudin, excused Sinatra by saying he had not made an unequivocal promise to appear, and had taken his private plane to London. Rudin offered to appear before the committee and read a statement on behalf of Sinatra. Pepper was worried that Sinatra might remain in London for the duration of the hearings, but the committee wasn’t interested in Rudin. The committee wanted Sinatra.

The American Civil Liberties Union came to Sinatra's defense with a statement:

 "This is a classic example of trial by publicity. Mr. Sinatra's case is but one example of a congressional committee publicly hearing adverse testimony, un-proved, unchecked, and un-rebutted, which could cause irreparable damage to the reputation of the person discussed." Even if Sinatra cleared his name, the ACLU said, "too much damage already has been done by then."

Sinatra finally answered the committee's call in July. When he arrived in Washington, he was steaming. He barely acknowledged the spectators who had jammed the huge house caucus room or the massive crowd of people waiting outside. He wasn't in the mood to be charming.

With the kind of bluster one reporter compared to "Lear denouncing the weather," Sinatra accused the committee of irresponsibly letting a convicted felon "bandy my name about."

"It was character assassination, let's face it," Sinatra said. "This bum went running off at the mouth and I resent it and I won't have it. I'm not a second class citizen. Let's make that clear."
Sinatra asked why no one in the counsel had held a press conference to refute the story once the hotel had issued its own statement. It was a good point. Sinatra was then asked if he would refute the story.

"I don't have to refute it because there isn't any truth to it," Sinatra said. "How do you repair the damage that was printed in the newspapers?"
He held up a newspaper headline with Barboza's comments in bold print.
"Isn't that charming?" Sinatra said. "And it's all hearsay testimony, isn't it?"
"Yes, it is," said Phillips, in what many observors took to be an apology.

Aside from his strong opening volley, Sinatra's appearance before the committee was  muddled. He denied knowing Patriarca, although the committee had a 1968 FBI report from Caesars Palace that mentioned Sinatra having "a message he wanted carried to Raymond Patriarca," who was reportedly a secret owner of Caesars. (Patriarca, for his part, also denied knowing Sinatra. When asked if any of his associates had ever done business with Sinatra, Patriarca took the Fifth.)

As for his role at the Hancock track, Sinatra said he bought $55, 000 worth of Berkshire Downs stock as an investment in late August 1962, but did not know any of the track's other investors. Sinatra said he didn't know he had been named a track vice president and director until he read it on sports pages, and had resigned as soon as he realized he'd been appointed.

Rep. Sam Steiger had a quick response that should’ve rattled Sinatra. Steiger said a federal wiretap on Patriarca's phone revealed he had been informed August 24, 1962 that Sinatra was to be elected to the track's board. Upon hearing this, Sinatra simply stared at Steiger, as if to say, "What is your point?"

Sinatra eventually loosened up. He played to the spectators. He used the old courtroom standby of not recalling certain things.

Had he asked his old Rat Pack singing buddy Dean Martin to join him as a shareholder in Berkshire Downs?

Sinatra didn't remember.

When had he last seen Sam Rizzo, the man who'd sold him the stock?

Sinatra didn't remember.  (Rizzo would also deny ever meeting Sinatra, although they'd been childhood neighbors.)

Sinatra's apparent strategy was to deny everything and hold the committee to a stalemate. At one point he claimed he didn't know how to read. It was a joke, but the glare in his eyes betrayed him. He was outraged that anyone dare intrude on the great Frank Sinatra.
For his part in the Berkshire Downs track, the Crime Committee's eventual report deemed Sinatra "an unwitting front."  Instead of looking crooked, Sinatra came off looking stupid. 
A few years later, Barboza was gunned down in a supermarket parking lot in California. Many believed he was killed by a pair of hitmen sent from Boston.
One wonders what Old Blue Eyes thought when he heard the news…

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