On Feb. 17, 1970, Frank Sinatra flew into Trenton to testify before the New Jersey State Investigative Commission as part of an ongoing investigation of organized crime.
Rumors of Sinatra and the Mafia had floated around since 1947, when Sinatra accompanied Joseph “Joey Fish” Fischetti to Havana as part of a meeting of American mobsters with deported boss Charles “Lucky” Luciano.
National gossip columnist Walter Winchell “dimed” on Sinatra, describing his relationships with underworld characters. Sinatra was also associated with Chicago mobster Sam “Mom” Giancana, and in a show of loyalty gave up his gaming license after it was learned he allowed Giancana to stay at his lodge in Lake Tahoe. He also had ties to New York’s Carlo Gambino, and Raymond Patriarca of New England.
Mario Puzo’s character Johnny Fontane, the heartthrob singer-actor of “The Godfather” who got his big break when Vito Corleone made a movie producer “an offer he can’t refuse,” was a thinly veiled representation of Sinatra. Although there are many variations on the story, it was believed Sinatra was helped early in his career when North Jersey gangster Willie Moretti “convinced” bandleader Tommy Dorsey to let Sinatra out of his contract by shoving a revolver in his mouth.
“Sinatra was what I call a ‘mob groupie,’ ” said mob historian Carl Sifakis of Queens, N.Y. “In Las Vegas, he was partner with Sam Giancana, one of the top Mafia figures in America. When he made his movie comeback, he used his mob contacts to get him the role in ‘From Here to Eternity.’ ”
But throughout his life, Sinatra fought (sometime with his fists) to keep people from talking about his underworld buddies, saying, “I wouldn’t have had so many problems if my last name didn’t end in a vowel.”
His appearance at SIC headquarters at 218 W. State St. happened only after the singer fought a subpoena for months. Sinatra had faced contempt charges for noncompliance and called the SIC “a three-ring circus.”
Details of Sinatra’s testimony were kept secret, although members of the SIC told reporters that Sinatra had been a helpful witness and answered all their questions.
But after Sinatra’s death on May 15, 1998, one member of the SIC told The Trentonian that the legendary singer from Hoboken had been evasive and flatly denied any association with organized crime figures.
“He was not very cooperative,” said Glen Miller of Princeton, the panel member. “He called our commission a ‘circus’ when we just wanted to know what he knew about organized crime.”
The FBI had a file of 1,275 pages on Sinatra, charting everything from Mafia ties to his relationship with President John F. Kennedy to his indulgence in high-priced call girls with Rat Pack buddies Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Lawford.
Sinatra was merely the most famous New Jerseyan linked to organized crime in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A year earlier, associations with mobsters ruined the careers of two Mercer County politicians.
On Dec. 11, 1968, Assistant Attorney General William J. Brennan 3rd told the state chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, a journalistic society, that three members of the New Jersey Legislature were “entirely too comfortable with organized crime.”
Brennan, the son of Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr., was directing a Mercer County grand jury investigating organized crime and corruption in local government.
Saying that crooks had infiltrated numerous industries and labor unions, Brennan added: “Too many local governments are responsive more to the mob than to the electorate that put them in office.”
Brennan’s statements came on the heels of a series of Life magazine articles about organized crime, charging that the Mafia wielded great influence in New Jersey, specifically linking Hudson County’s Congressman Cornelius Gallagher, as well as a retired state trooper, to the mob.
In 1957, cops had disrupted a meeting of La Cosa Nostra in Apalachin, N.Y., bringing the existence of a national crime syndicate into the spotlight and forcing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to acknowledge the existence of the Mafia.
But by 1968, little was known about the inner workings of the mob. Francis Ford Coppola’s Hollywood version of “The Godfather” was still four years away, and the public had rarely heard such insider language as “consigliere” or “capo.” Additionally, Watergate had not yet destroyed the public’s trust in elected officials.
Brennan’s accusations struck like a thunderbolt, shaking the legislative body to the core, and touching off weeks of raging controversy. Brennan wouldn’t reveal the names of the three politicians, but he added fuel to the fire a day later, saying there were three other state officials with close connections to the mob.
Gov. Richard Hughes, in a meeting with Democratic Party leaders and Attorney General Arthur Sills, asked Brennan to disclose the names. Brennan refused, stating that the meeting of party leaders did not constitute a political body and his disclosures could make him vulnerable to defamation suits.
Brennan was, however, willing to turn over confidential files on the legislators. Hughes, fearful of jeopardizing informants named in the files, declined.
Frank McDermott, R-Union, was president-elect of the state Senate and demanded public disclosure of Brennan’s six.
The day after Christmas, the Evening News of Newark, citing “unimpeachable and completely authentic” sources, printed the names of Brennan’s three pols who were too comfortable with organized crime. On the list were two assemblymen, Republican John Selecky of East Windsor and Democrat David Friedland of Hudson County.
Most shockingly, Sido Ridolfi, Mercer’s prominent Democratic state senator, was also named. Ridolfi, who had served in the Senate representing Trenton since 1954, was a former president of the upper house and served as acting governor briefly in 1967.
Although Selecky and Ridolfi both denied any wrongdoing, they told reporters they had an inkling of the associations Brennan had in mind.
Ridolfi had helped John Simone, a k a Johnny Keyes, in the purchase of a house at 710 President Ave. in Lawrence. Simone was a cousin of Angelo Bruno, Philadelphia’s boss of bosses. Simone had been sentenced to two years for bootlegging by a federal court in 1944 and had a long record of other offenses, including assault and robbery. In 1980 he would himself fall victim to a mob rubout.
It was also learned that Ridolfi had represented the Bralynski brothers, Edward and Raymond, in a number of real estate deals, and the three jointly owned land in Hamilton that was in the path of an extension of Interstate 295 between Nottingham Way and East State Street Extension. Edward Bralynski had received notoriety when he was seen accompanying Simone to a city trial for Bruno in a motor-vehicle violation case.
Selecky had testified as a character witness for Salvatore Profaci, owner of the Hightstown restaurant Ming Room, who had been charged with abusive language toward a trooper in a traffic violation case. Profaci’s uncle, Joe Profaci, had ruled one of the fearsome Five Families of the New York Mafia from 1930 until his death in 1962. Salvatore Profaci had also been caught by state police digging what was believed to be a grave in Millstone Township in 1968.
Friedland, meanwhile, had been involved in a loan sharking deal. Woodbridge Township car-wash owner Julius Pereria filed a complaint against reputed Mafia figure John DiGilio, who had extorted Pereria for $6,000 interest on a $3,000 loan.
On Dec. 30, Brennan appeared before a committee to investigate the Legislature and confirmed that Selecky, Ridolfi and Friedland were indeed the men who were “entirely too comfortable” with the Mafia.
Brennan, saying that a man need not be convicted of a crime to be considered a member of a crime ring, insisted that the three had exercised poor judgment in their actions, and that legislators should not represent clients in criminal cases. Brennan then came under fire, as a lawyer for the committee, Sidney McCord, called Brennan’s testimony “flimsy” and “all innuendo.”
In mid-January 1969, Brennan was relieved of his charge of investigating corruption as a new state anti-crime probe was formed.
“If the testimony concerning the other three names is as flimsy as this,” McCord said, “I see no reason to make any more names public so that people can say, ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.’ ”
But the Brennan incident undoubtedly helped raise public awareness of the problem of corruption.
Within a month of his speech before Sigma Delta Chi, the State Investigative Commission, which later questioned Sinatra, was formed. At the same time, the federal government launched an anti-Mafia strike force consisting of officials from seven federal agencies. Based in Newark, the team conducted raids and gathered intelligence on Mafia families believed to be raking in $1 billion a year in the state.
Although Gov. William Cahill was premature when he announced a complete victory over organized crime late in 1970, as the Philadelphia and New York families continued to exert influence in the state, the Mafia did take a major hit in the early 1970s.
A dozen high-ranking mobsters went to jail rather than break omerta — the Mafia’s code of silence, enforced by murder — and U.S. Attorney Ken Lacey brought indictments against 122 state officials. Lacey most notably won a conviction against Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio for extortion and conspiracy.
Perhaps most importantly, Brennan’s charges helped pave the way for tougher standards of ethics for elected officials and a zero tolerance for association with crime figures.
A committee led by Sen. Alfred Beadleston, R-Monmouth, sharply criticized Ridolfi, Selecky and Friedland.
Of Ridolfi, they said: “Senator Ridolfi has had undesirable business associates and clients of questionable character.
“He failed to exercise sound judgment when he learned that there was question as to the character and reputation of his business associates.”
Its report said Selecky had “brought the Legislature under a cloud of disapproval,” adding that he should have refused to appear as a character witness for Profaci and severed his relationship with him.
Selecky was outraged.
“How did I bring this house under public disapproval?” Selecky asked. “I stood up for a man who had committed no crime, who happens to have an Italian name and who happens to have an uncle who has been dead for five years.”
Ridolfi, who claimed he had no knowledge of Simone’s involvement in organized crime, steadfastly maintained he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Just last year, Ridolfi said: “It was not fair, and the coverage of [The Trentonian] was not fair.”
The committee exonerated Brennan’s second trio of politicians: John Horn and Lee Laskin, both assemblymen from Camden County, as well as Sen. Frank Farley of Atlantic County, saying there was no evidence any of the three could be linked to organized crime. Brennan himself had said the evidence against them did not match those of Ridolfi, Friedland and Selecky.
Since the committee had found Ridolfi, Selecky and Friedland had broken no laws, it did not recommend any action against them. Still, the damage was done. Ridolfi chose not to run for re-election. Selecky, who vowed to run again, was nonetheless pressured out by GOP leaders.
Of course, Sinatra, the man who invented cool and lived like a rock star before rock ’n roll existed, could never go out of style. He continued to play to adoring audiences until the late 1990s.
“When you become an icon, you can get away with a lot of things,” mob historian Sifakis said.
Ridolfi and Selecky, merely politicians, weren’t so lucky.