William L. Brown
Jimmy Hoffa’s arrival here on Jan. 19, 1964, more resembled a labor rally than preparation for the trial that sent the legendary Teamsters boss to prison and toppled him from the nation’s most powerful labor union.
Supporters lined the tarmac at Lovell Field with welcoming signs and chanted his name: “Jimmy, Jimmy Jimmy.”
How the most infamous leader of what was the largest union in the world came to be tried in Chattanooga 44 years ago is only part of the story. When James Riddle Hoffa walked into the federal courtroom the next day to face charges of jury tampering, his trial also became a trial of the American justice system.
“It’s importance stretches far beyond Chattanooga because it involves what I think is the most massive attempt to corrupt the administration of justice in my lifetime anywhere in the country,” said John Seigenthaler, former editor of the Tennessean and former administrative assistant to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
“When the bell of justice rang in Chattanooga the day he was convicted, it echoed all across the country,” Mr. Seigenthaler said.
The Chattanooga jury handed Mr. Hoffa his first conviction.
Marvin Berke, a local defense attorney for Mr. Hoffa who handled the case with his late father, Harry Berke, said the case had far-reaching but more chilling effects.
“I learned that you can’t always trust the government. When Watergate came along, I understood how it happened. Because it was the follow-up to the same type of thing — the government being too powerful and getting away with things that they were used to getting away with,” Mr. Berke said.
File Photos By Chattanooga News-Free Press -- Jimmy Hoffa, seen here arriving for court in Chattanooga, wore white socks because he said colored socks made his feet sweat.
As the Hoffa case unfolded in six weeks of testimony, it had all the elements of a great epic — politics, deceit, sex, greed and death.
A legal conference here this week will examine the history of the Hoffa trial, and Hoffa’s attempt to tamper with justice. The conference, an annual meeting of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, features Mr. Seigenthaler and others who were part of the trial. A documentary made for the conference, “Balancing the Scales: The Chattanooga Trial of U.S. v James R. Hoffa,” has been nominated to be shown in July as part of the local Back Row Film Series in July.
Getting to Chattanooga
Jimmy Hoffa, a grade-school dropout but tough negotiator, formed his own union and merged it with the Teamsters when he was 19.
AT A GLANCE
WHO: James “Jimmy” Hoffa, labor leader and president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1957 to 1967. The Teamsters organized unions.
WHAT HE DID: Convicted in Chattanooga of attempted bribery of a jury and conspiracy. He was sentenced to eight years in prison. After three appeals, Mr. Hoffa began serving his sentence in 1967. President Richard M. Nixon pardoned him in 1971.
WHY YOU KNOW HIM: The Hoffa story captured public imagination when he disappeared July 30, 1975, under mysterious circumstances. His body was never found, although urban legend placed his remains in Giants Stadium in New Jersey. He was declared dead in 1983.
IN THE MOVIES: Jack Nicholson portrayed him in the movie “Hoffa.” The actor’s portrayal was “completely false,” said Wallace Clements, a former local Teamsters political worker now retired to Florida. “Jimmy didn’t drink or smoke or womanize. Guys were scared to death to drink in front of him,” he said.
WHY CHATTANOOGA: Jimmy Hoffa stood trial six times. The fifth trial, which occurred here after Hoffa attorneys secured a change of venue from Nashville, marked the legendary Teamster leader’s first conviction.
WHY NOW: The Hoffa case is a topic for the 400 participants expected at the 2008 Judicial Conference of the 6th Circuit here this week.
He rose quickly in the union’s ranks, and in 1957, at age 44, was elected the Teamsters president.
In 1961, when Mr. Kennedy became the U.S. Attorney General for his brother, President John F. Kennedy, Mr. Hoffa became the new Teamsters investigation target, according to historians.
Three times in the next several years, the Justice Department’s “Get Hoffa Squad” indicted the Teamster chief on various charges. Each time the trials ended in acquittals or mistrials, and each time, tension rose between Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hoffa.
“After one of the trials, Mr. Kennedy told Hoffa if he wasn’t convicted this time, he (Mr. Kennedy) would jump off the Capitol,” Mr. Seigenthaler recalled.
At the trial’s conclusion, Mr. Hoffa, still a free man, bought a parachute and sent it to the attorney general with a note: “You may need this,” Mr. Seigenthaler quoted the Hoffa message.
It was the fourth trial that brought Mr. Hoffa to Tennessee.
The case grew out of a tip Mr. Seigenthaler, then a young reporter,for the Tennessean, said he received about a fake company formed in the Volunteer State.
Mr. Seigenthaler found the incorporation records for a paper corporation called Test Fleet, set up by Detroit’s Commercial Carriers Inc. The new company was to lease trucks to Commercial Carriers and transfer stock to Josephine Poszywak and Alice Johnson.
The names turned out to be the maiden names of Mrs. Hoffa and the wife of Bert Brennan, another Teamster leader and Hoffa friend.
A documentary made about the Jimmy Hoffa trial will be shown at the 2008 Judicial Conference of the 6th Circuit, an annual event to be held this week in Chattanooga for the first time. “Balancing the Scales: The Chattanooga Trial of U.S. v. James R. Hoffa” has been nominated to be shown in July at the Hunter Museum of American Art as part of the Back Row Film Series.
Mr. Hoffa was indicted again and tried in Nashville on charges of violating the Taft-Hartley Act, which bars employee representatives from receiving payments from employers except for wages and other specifically defined purposes.
The case ended in a mistrial amid claims of jury fixing, and a new investigation was ordered.
This time, Mr. Hoffa was indicted on jury tampering charges, and Chattanooga’s new federal jurist, Frank Wilson, was appointed special judge. The trial moved to Chattanooga.
The defense team was more than pleased. Known as the Dynamo of Dixie, Chattanooga was the 10th largest manufacturing city in the nation and heavily unionized.
Chattanoogan Harry Mansfield, then the U.S. Marshal for East Tennessee, said no one was prepared for what was about to happen.
“When I heard the trial was going to be here, I went to Judge Wilson and asked him, ‘What are your orders for me?’” recalled Mr. Mansfield, now 82. “He said, ‘Harry, don’t let the Marshal Service cause a mistrial.”
Although Mr. Hoffa and his team were confident when the trial began, as the court process continued, it became obvious the Hoffa strategy was to obtain a mistrial at all costs.
Mr. Mansfield and the lone remaining juror from the trial, Pat Haverty, now 76, said the jaunty arrogance of Mr. Hoffa and his contingent dissolved the day prosecution witness Edward Partin was called to the witness stand.
“When he walked out, Hoffa just nearly fell on the floor,” said Mr. Haverty, who at 32 was the youngest member of the jury.
“I thought at first he was just a bodyguard, but he turned out to be the primary informant,” Mr. Haverty said. “He was working with Jimmy Hoffa. Partin knew about everything. Everybody was just shocked. He was the man who convinced me.”
Head of the Teamsters local in Baton Rouge, La., Mr. Partin had been invited to Nashville by Mr. Hoffa to help sway jurors in the Test Fleet trial. But Mr. Partin, facing indictments in Louisiana, began working with the government.
In Chattanooga, Mr. Partin provided the jury with information that directly linked Mr. Hoffa to those attempted bribes.
James Neal, lead prosecutor, agreed that Mr. Partin’s appearance as a witness was a surprise.
“The courthouse turned into an uproar with the defense counsel flying all over the place,” Mr. Neal said, adding that Mr. Hoffa thought the prosecution’s case hinged only on wiretaps of their phones.
Mr. Berke said defense lawyers were stunned that anyone would consider Mr. Partin a credible witness, but Mr. Neal said Mr. Partin’s involvement was more than credible.
“He was a Teamster official turned to our side,” Mr. Neal said. “And he was guarding Hoffa’s door at his hotel in Nashville. And he was telling us of attempts to bribe jurors as it was going on at the Nashville trial.”
Mr. Neal said Mr. Partin was on the witness stand for seven or eight days. “And (he) was a great witness,” the prosecutor said.
Mr. Mansfield made arrangements for about 30 different deputy marshals from around the state to help supplement the two in Chattanooga.
He had heard of efforts to get to some of the jurors, who were sequestered and kept on an entire floor of the Read House, sandwiched between the marshals and the government’s legal team.
“One day I went out and looked up, and on top of the Patten Hotel — on the roof — was a guy with field glasses looking right down on our jury room,” Mr. Mansfield said.
The man on the roof was Bernard Spindel, an expert on wiretaps hired by Mr. Hoffa and his attorneys. The Hoffa team, staying at the Patten Hotel, said they hired Mr. Spindel to show the government was wrongly bugging and spying on them.
Mr. Mansfield also said he heard things that caused him concern for the judge and his family.
“Those people want a mistrial,” the retired marshal recalled saying to the judge. “I wouldn’t put anything beyond what they might try to do.”
Judge Wilson finally allowed guards for himself and his family.
His son, Randy Wilson, then 8 and now a local attorney, said his father ultimately became concerned that there might be efforts to kidnap either of his two sons.
“In my naive young age,” Mr. Wilson said, “it was pretty cool. I was frequently chauffeured to school by U.S. Marshals and picked up by them. I didn’t appreciate the potential danger.”
He said he realized as he grew older just how great the pressure was on his father.
“He told me later there was no question he knew the Hoffa trial took several years off his life,” Mr. Wilson said. The judge died in 1981 at the age of 65.
During the trial, Mr. Wilson said, his father did not go to bed before 3 a.m. The judge felt he needed to pour over the transcripts in order not to make a mistake, he said.
“He would have loved to have not been the judge,” Mr. Wilson said. “(We) realized too that the Wilson family would have been very happy if the Hoffa trial had never come Frank Wilson’s way.”
Mr. Berke praised Judge Wilson’s poise during the trial and subsequent three appeals.
“I thought he did an unbelievable job of keeping his composure with everything that was going on around him,” he said.
Assault on justice
Today the remaining trial participants agree the “outrageous behavior” of some members of the defense team would not be acceptable even in modern courtrooms.
“The thing that caught everybody by surprise was the assault on the court system,” said attorney Charles Gearhiser, then an administrative law clerk for Judge Wilson. “The outrageous conduct led to one attorney being cited for contempt,” he said.
Following the Nashville case that led to the Chattanooga trial, another young attorney there, Z.T. Osborn, was imprisoned for trying to help Mr. Hoffa’s jury tampering attempt.
1913 Feb. 14: Jimmy Hoffa is born in Indiana.
1957 Mr. Hoffa becomes president of the Teamsters.
1961 Robert Kennedy is named U.S. Attorney General and organizes the “Get Hoffa Squad.”
1963 Mr. Hoffa’s fourth criminal trial ends with a hung jury in Nashville amid cries of jury tampering. The government leaves the original charge pending and instead pursues new charges of attempting to bribe jurors. The case is moved to Chattanooga.
1964 Mr. Hoffa is found guilty here of jury tampering. Later that year he is found guilty of pension fraud in Chicago. 1967 After three appeals on the jury tampering charges, Mr. Hoffa is ordered to prison.
1971 Dec. 23: President Richard Nixon pardons Mr. Hoffa, and he is released from prison on the condition he not participate in union activities for 10 years.
1975 Mr. Hoffa attempts a comeback to Teamsters control. Later that year, Mr. Hoffa, 62, disappears, believed to be the victim of foul play after efforts to regain control of the union.
1982 Mobster Charles Allen tells a U.S. Senate committee that Hoffa was killed on mob orders. He claimed Hoffa’s body was “ground up in little pieces, shipped to Florida and thrown into a swamp.”
1983 Authorities declare Hoffa officially dead, although his body has never been found.
“I came to the conclusion, that a person like Jimmy Hoffa could pose problems for a lawyer,” he said.
Mr. Neal and Mr. Gearhiser said Mr. Hoffa and his lawyers continually tried the patience of the judge and prosecution team, trying to rile them into mistrial actions or trial errors.
“He used to give me the finger every day under the table,” Mr. Neal said.
Mr. Mansfield called the Hoffa team behavior harassment. He said Mr. Hoffa told Mr. Neal, “I hope you die of cancer,” and cursed him.
The badgering didn’t end with the trial, he said.
In appealing the case, the defense team produced a surprise affidavit from three prostitutes who claimed they had slept with jurors and the judge during the trial.
“When I heard that, I thought to myself, well, they’ve messed up big time now,” Mr. Mansfield said. “Judge Wilson knew one woman in his lifetime. That was his wife.”
All three women later were found guilty of perjury, Mr. Mansfield said.
During the trial’s summation, “one of the lawyers threw 23 pieces of silver on the prosecution table and called us Judas for some reason,” Mr. Neal said.
The other side
While the prosecution saw the Hoffa conviction in Chattanooga as a huge win for the legal justice system, Mr. Berke remains concerned.
“This ‘Get Hoffa Squad’ wasn’t lily white,” said Mr. Berke, who was 24 at the time of the trial. “Even though (the prosecution) represented the government, I feel they did things they shouldn’t have done.”
Mr. Berke said he believes that the government’s use of a Hoffa confidant during the Nashville trial to spy for them played a big part in jump-starting the jury tampering charges.
“Partin telling the prosecution what was going on (in Nashville) interfered with Mr. Hoffa’s right to counsel,” Mr. Berke said. If the jury in Nashville had convicted Mr. Hoffa, the public never would have come to know about the prosecution’s tactics, he said.
The tactics continued here, according to Mr. Berke, who described two months of phone tapping and intense FBI surveillance of those connected with Mr. Hoffa’s defense.
The government denied there was any surveillance, Mr. Berke said, but the government surveillance was why the Hoffa team felt forced to hire Mr. Spindel, the electronics expert.
The defense team later used Mr. Spindel’s work to provide the basis for some of the hundreds of appeal claims in the case.
William L. “Chink” Brown, whose father, Harold, also helped defend Mr. Hoffa in Chattanooga, voiced respect for Mr. Hoffa’s toughness.
“You don’t get to be head of that union wearing a halo and wings,” Mr. Brown said. “But he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke and he worked out every day. He was a devoted husband and father.”
He said his father and Mr. Hoffa became friends.
File Photo By Chattanooga News-Free Press -- Jimmy Hoffa arrives at Lovell Field in January 1964. Media coverage of the trial was heavy.
“I think he perceived my dad as a fighter and someone who handled himself well in the courtroom,” Mr. Brown said.
The subtle effects of becoming close to Mr. Hoffa lingered well beyond the trial for his father, who was a Teamster’s local union member much before Mr. Hoffa ever came into the picture, Mr. Brown, also an attorney, said.
“I don’t think he regretted being in the Hoffa trial,” Mr. Brown said. “But in general, my dad’s connections to labor affected him politically.”
Harold Brown lost two elections in the 1970s, one for District Attorney General in Hamilton County and one for a city court judgeship.
Today’s Labor legacy
Bobby Logan, retired head of Teamsters Local 515, was driving a truck when Mr. Hoffa came to trial here.
“He was an iron man,” Mr. Logan recalls. “He was a great leader, and his members loved him.”
As a new member to the teamsters, Mr. Logan, now 65, recalls the energetic Mr. Hoffa leaping onto the running board of a truck, shaking hands with the driver and asking how he was doing.
“He said ‘Everything in this building (the federal courthouse), including the judge, is owned by the federal government,’” Mr. Logan said.
Union members were fascinated by the man they viewed as tough for them.
“The attitude of the members was, ‘Well, we know he’s not a saint, but look what he does for us,’” Mr. Logan said. The Teamster boss had arranged a contract including provisions for a pension that would allow truckers to be eligible for retirement at 57. He also got them dental and vision insurance.
“He loved his union and the union was his life, but he dealt with the mob, too — although on his terms. I think that’s what eventually got him killed,” Mr. Logan said.
The trial, and the behavior of Mr. Hoffa and his team, hurt the future of the labor movement locally, Mr. Logan said. Many in the public saw Mr. Hoffa shove reporters, and people heard or read about the testimony in the trial, he said.
Teamsters membership grew from 750,000 members to 2.5 million between 1957 and 1967, when Mr. Hoffa went to jail, Mr. Logan said.
“I think workers do want a tough union, and Hoffa’s tough image resonated with workers,” Mr. Logan said.
Pam Sohn has been reporting or editing Chattanooga news for 25 years. A Walden’s Ridge native, she began her journalism career with a 10-year stint at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. She came to the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 1999 after working at the Chattanooga Times for 14 years. She has been a city editor, Sunday editor, wire editor, projects team leader and assistant lifestyle editor. As a reporter, she also has covered the police, ...