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Las Vegas: An Unconventional History | Article

Estes Kefauver (1903-1963)

Estes Kefauver. Courtesy: Library of Congress

After decades of looking the other way, in 1950 the United States Senate launched an investigation into the world of organized crime -- the U.S. Senate Special Committee to Investigate Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. Senator Estes Kefauver, a Democrat from Tennessee, chaired the committee.

Exposing the Syndicate
The Kefauver Committee, as it became commonly known, interviewed hundreds of witnesses in fourteen cities over the course of fifteen months, in the first governmental attempt to expose the extent of the breadth of organized crime in America.

A Public Drama
While addressing the problem of organized crime, Kefauver, a political opportunist who had helped push for the creation of the committee, was hoping to gain national exposure and public support in anticipation of the 1952 presidential election. His wish for publicity was granted with the live broadcasting of the hearings.

A Television Event
Although the committee's executive sessions were closed to the press, much of the hearings was televised nationally, and more than 30 million Americans tuned in to watch Kefauver and his colleagues interrogate some of the most famous crime leaders in the nation.

A Nation Riveted
An article in Life Magazine described the public sentiment: "People had suddenly gone indoors into living rooms, taverns, and clubrooms, auditoriums and back-offices. There, in eerie half-light, looking at millions of small frosty screens, people sat as if charmed. Never before had the attention of the nation been riveted so completely on a single matter."

Crusade and Campaign
As the Kefauver Committee made its way to major cites across the country, Americans increasingly saw Kefauver as a heroic "everyman" leading a crusade against corrupt criminals. Before each session, Kefauver and his colleagues gave press conferences; often the committee took strategically placed breaks from hearing testimony in order to hold conferences in time for the coverage to make the evening editions of newspapers. Kefauver became very popular.

The Holy Grail
While Kefauver's stance garnered increasing public support, casino operators in Las Vegas, anticipating the arrival of the committee, grew anxious. Casino owners knew that, despite their deep connections, they remained potentially vulnerable. One member of the Syndicate recalled, "You just got to the point where you thought you didn't have to bribe everybody, or at least in Nevada not pay so much, and then along comes Kefauver."

Ambiguity and Denials
On November 15, 1950, Kefauver and his colleagues arrived in Las Vegas. The committee had already been conducting hearings for five months, and they were tired. Many of the high profile casino owners who had received subpoenas for the committee, like Moe Dalitz, had skipped town. Kefauver and his committee interviewed only six witnesses, and these were were hardly helpful. It was the same throughout the hearings; ambiguous answers and flat-out denials were the norm.

A Short Session
After just two hours of interviewing witnesses, the committee took a break to visit Boulder Dam. Upon returning, they continued the hearings for a short time before holding a press conference and calling the Las Vegas portion of the investigation to an end. All told, the hearings barely lasted a day.

Come and Gone
To Las Vegans, the hearings were both a relief and almost disappointingly anti-climactic. As a story covering the hearings in the Las Vegas Review-Journal began, "The United States Senate's crime investigating committee blew into town yesterday like a desert whirlwind, and after stirring up a lot of dust, it vanished, leaving only the rustling among prominent local citizens as evidence that it had paid its much publicized visit here."

What Kefauver and his colleagues were finding was that the relationship between politicians, authorities and mobsters was not as clear-cut as had been posited. For decades the government and the Syndicate had maintained a symbiotic relationship. Syndicate members were often major donors to political campaigns. Many prominent politicians of the day, even those who publicly praised Kefauver's efforts, had intimate, albeit secret, ties with Syndicate members. Kefauver himself was known to be fond of gambling, and committee member Herbert O'Conor was rumored to have ties to the Mafia.

A Moral Judgement
The Kefauver Committee's final report was more than 11,000 pages long, out of which only four pages pertained to Las Vegas. Although the committee came up with little new information about Las Vegas, Kefauver did have some general comments about the city. "Big time gambling is amoral," he concluded. "Gambling produces nothing and adds nothing to the economy or society of our nation."

McCarran Steps In
To remedy Las Vegas' apparent inability to keep organized crime out of city lines, Kefauver suggested that the federal government impose a 10 percent tax on all gaming. But such a proposition would have been disastrous for Las Vegas, and Senator Pat McCarran fervently and successfully argued against Kefauver's suggestion.

The Black Book
However, caught between a rock and a hard place, Nevada officials were eventually pressured to make steps toward some kind of gaming oversight. In 1955, to weed out gangsters, the state required that any owner of a casino be licensed by the state gaming board. The act inadvertently enshrined organized crime. It ruled out corporations, which have thousands of shareholder "owners," making personal (and mostly illegal) fortunes the only money readily available. That was Kefauver's legacy. Later, Nevada created the Gaming Control Board, and adapted more stringent laws in an attempt to weed out gangster applicants for licenses. In 1960, the Gaming Control Board published "the Black Book," officially entitled A List of Excluded Persons, banning known gangsters from casinos.

The Cover of Time
Kefauver gained national prominence and popularity as a result of the hearings. He was on the cover of Time magazine and co-wrote a book, Crime in America, about the investigation. In 1952 and 1956, Kefauver ran for president, but was unsuccessful in his bid for the Democratic nomination. For the latter election, however, he was nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson's running mate. Kefauver died on August 10, 1963, two days after experiencing a massive heart attack on the Senate floor.

While the Kefauver hearings did bring the problem of organized crime to the national consciousness, forcing the FBI and the government to publicly admit that such an organization existed, the hearings did relatively little to damage the strength of the Syndicate. In fact, the hearings persuaded local hoods that they were free from the law -- a Senate committee had come to town and nothing happened. The presence of organized crime grew even stronger and more concentrated in Las Vegas, as another wave of criminals, seeking refuge after being run out of their home states, surged into Nevada. The Syndicate would continue to wield control of Las Vegas for two decades after the conclusion of the Kefauver Hearings.

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