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Estes Kefauver - An Honest Man

crime organized increased public

Kefauver made his mark as a senator when he was appointed chair of the Special Committee on Organized Crime in Interstate Commerce. He headed the five-man panel and conducted hearings into the existence of a nationwide organized crime syndicate in the United States (see sidebar). The investigation began in May 1950 and saw hundreds of witnesses testify in fourteen cities over the next fifteen months. Underworld figures from minor players to major gangsters as well as public servants, from police officers to mayors, gave testimony on the activities of organized crime.

Other congressional committees had been televised before but the Kefauver Committee was the first to attract a large audience. Because few people owned television sets during the 1950–51 hearings, they would gather in restaurants, bars, and businesses to watch the drama unfold. Never before had national attention been so completely focused on a single matter.

Organized Crime


Organized crime thrives by providing goods and services that laws prohibit but people desire. Not everyone agrees about the seriousness of the various activities defined as organized crime. Not all Americans see sports betting, extortion (threats of violence), loan-sharking (charging very high interest rates on loans), and racketeering (participating in a pattern of more than one criminal offenses) as equally criminal or socially harmful. Organized crime, however, does use violence, intimidation, and threats to establish power. Corruption of police and public officials is necessary in sustaining control in criminal specialties, particularly involving drug trafficking and gambling.

Early in the nation's history, crime was seen by some immigrants and citizens at the city and regional levels as a practical avenue of upward social mobility. The bootlegging (selling illegal alcohol) and racketeering (obtaining money through illegal enterprise and often intimidation) of the 1920s expanded into labor unions in the 1930s and then casinos and real estate in the 1940s. By the 1950s gangsters were known to terrorize voters and manipulate local elections to their advantage.

The Kefauver Committee greatly increased public awareness of organized crime families in 1950 when it first exposed the powerful American Mafia or Cosa Nostra, literally meaning "our thing." Comprised of several influential Italian mob families, it was not the only crime organization in America, as others existed. It was, however, the most powerful at the time.

In 1970 Congress passed the Organized Crime Control Act, also known as RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act). It provided a coordinated effort in the investigation and prosecution of organized criminal groups. The Italian American crime families of the Mafia were not successfully prosecuted for their crimes until the 1980s and 1990s.

Congress passed RICO specifically to combat the infiltration of organized crime into legitimate businesses. Tougher penalties and increased protection for witnesses accompanied the Money Laundering Control Act of 1986. By the 1980s the definition of organized crime grew to include white-collar or corporate offenders, expanding the battle from the streets to the boardroom.

Criminal conspiracies in the 1980s included accountants, lawyers, bank officials, and real estate developers in a major savings and loan (banking) scandal. The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries saw otherwise legitimate and official organizations committing organized crimes with far-reaching consequences.

Advances in communications technologies also increased international organized crime. The potential for committing crimes across borders further increased with the integration of the world's economic systems after the Cold War. (The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry from 1945 to 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union falling just short of military conflict.) Governments were left to sort out political responses to the complexities of law enforcement as organized crime increasingly operated without national boundaries.


Kefauver encouraged the public trial to arouse the national sentiment necessary to pass legislation against organized crime. He agreed to respect the wishes of those who did not want to be televised when they were testifying. Kefauver was commended for protecting the constitutional rights of all witnesses during the investigation, while still successfully probing into organized crime in America.

The Kefauver Committee investigation produced significant results and offered several recommendations to Congress. Along with the formation of a racketeering squad in the Justice Department harsher penalties were created for many unlawful acts and efforts increased to deport gangsters. Over seventy local crime commissions were established in cities across America as public awareness of organized crime increased.

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