The Kefauver Commission Hearings 1950-51 By Asher Sarnoff Assistant Curator

The Kefauver hearings which took place in 1950-51, were undertaken to ascertain exactly how powerful organized crime was in the United States. Authorities didn’t know the extent of organized crimes power. Did one family rule the entire country? Was it a network? How deeply ingrained in American society were they and what industries did they have a foothold in? All these questions and more were asked and sometimes answered of the over 600 witnesses who testified before the commission. It ended up in New York City where organized crime figures of the day were asked to testify. Many organized crime figures hid behind the fifth amendment so as not to incriminate themselves. This hearing also forced the F.B.I. to admit that they had known about organized crime for years and hadn’t been able to do much to stop their rise to power. Even though the F.B.I. had been fighting organized crime since its federalization by  President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

Kefauver had his own political aspirations and that may have been behind him pushing for this committee to be formed. They traveled to 14 states and interviewed hundreds of witnesses. Many told them how organized crime was making inroads, they spoke about payoffs to organized crime figures, corruption and more. These hearings captivated the nation and were televised often. Over 30 million viewers tuned in and were riveted by the information they were listening to. When the commission arrived in Las Vegas, most of the people called to testify skipped town. Organized crime feared the commission might expose organized crimes ties to Las Vegas and other gambling concerns.  Since so many people didn’t show up to testify the Las Vegas hearings were shut down and barely lasted one day. This was the uniform result in many cities that the commission visited. Many people refusing to testify or pleading the fifth amendment and hiding behind the rites it gives people under American law.  The Las Vegas review ran an article speaking about the ineffectiveness of the commission, it was quoted as saying  ”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.”

The final Kefauver Commission report was over 11,000 pages long, however only four pages of it were about Las Vegas. While it was known that organized crime was involved in illegal and legal gambling, there seemed at the time no way to dislodge them from it. Kefauver is known to have been someone that enjoyed gambling at times, yet his remarks during the hearings say different. He was quoted as saying of gambling “Gambling produces nothing and adds nothing to the economy or society of our nation.” To combat organized crimes leverage in the gambling world, Kefauver and others brought up the idea of a 10 % tax on all gaming but others voted this measure down claiming it would hurt Las Vegas too much and jeopardize the large tax revenues that casino’s generated for the state.

Due to political pressure, in 1955 the Nevada gaming commission instituted a law that any casino owner had to be licensed by the states gaming board. Later, the state would institute more strict laws to try and weed organized crime out of casino’s. In the sixties they would create the “Black Book”, a book of people who were banned from entering and owning casino’s. This book was mostly filled with organized crime figures who were no longer allowed into casinos. If you watched the film “Casino” it is this law that is the beginning of the end for organized crimes run on Casinos. It made it more difficult for organized crime to plant a fake boss that they could control as the head of a casino and to run it for them.

While the Kefauver hearings at their inception seemed a great idea, they did little to stop organized crime or even deter them. Organized crime saw the hearings as another instance of government doing little if anything to stop them. It was known that for decades, organized crime had not only bribed politicians, but had also contributed and raised large sums of cash to elect different candidates. Organized crime would continue to hold on to power in Las Vegas for the better part of two decades after the hearings had concluded. Kefauver died on September 10th, 1963, two days after having a heart attack on the floor of the senate.



Frank Costello at the Kefauver Hearings 1950-51, Frank became an unwanted star from his stint at the hearings, appearing nervous he asked to not have his face shown, instead his hands were and you could see from watching on television that he was nervous during his questioning.

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