Jimmy Hoffa, the brilliant but ruthless head of the Teamsters Union, had a taste for corruption and a knack for making powerful enemies, including his frequent business partners, the Mafia, and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After President Nixon commuted his federal prison sentence, Hoffa planned to retake control of the Teamsters, much to the alarm of the mob. Then, one July day in 1975, Hoffa vanished without a trace from a restaurant parking lot outside of Detroit, a mystery that has inspired books, TV shows, movies (the most recent is Martin Scorsese’s film, “The Irishman”), and a raft of conspiracy theories. Jack L. Goldsmith, Henry L. Shattuck Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, was no Hoffa conspiracy buff, but he had good reason to think that Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien, Hoffa’s right-hand man and one of the FBI’s earliest suspects, had been falsely accused of driving Hoffa to his killers. First, O’Brien’s alibi, although not airtight, eventually checked out enough that the FBI never charged him. And second, O’Brien is Goldsmith’s stepfather. In a new book, “In Hoffa’s Shadow,” Goldsmith dug through government and court records, FBI wiretap transcripts, and he spoke to dozens of FBI agents, prosecutors, and Hoffa experts to see whether, decades later, he could clear his stepdad’s name — and maybe even figure out what happened to Hoffa.
GAZETTE: You describe the book as a story about “how an uneducated serial lawbreaker with mob values nourished his vulnerable stepson at a crucial stage in his life and set him on a path that led him to a career at the DOJ and Harvard Law School.” From college until you left the Department of Justice in 2004, you were estranged from your stepdad for 20 years because you felt his connection to Hoffa would damage your legal career. Why did you want to write this book? Was it an atonement of sorts?
GOLDSMITH: I guess it was part atonement. His life was ruined by all the Hoffa stuff, and I thought I could give him a much fairer shake no matter what I did than the way he had been treated by the public and in the press. From the very beginning, in 1975, he was the leading suspect. He was the one person who the government believed was involved and thought they had evidence that he was involved. There are lots of circumstantial reasons to think that he was involved, and the government let that be known publicly in 1975, and ever since, in every publication that’s come out, in every movie that’s been done about this, including the Scorsese film. It wasn’t until the ’90s that they started to have doubts. But the government never changed the public story, they just let it stay out there. So, to this very day, when you [search online] any discussion of the Hoffa disappearance, it says that Chuckie drove him to his death.
GAZETTE: Your stepfather was a longtime confidant to Hoffa and to a top Detroit mob figure who trusted him with many secrets. And though author Mario Puzo modeled the Tom Hagen character in “The Godfather” after Chuckie, everyone agreed, even your stepdad, that he was not Hoffa’s cool-headed consigliere. How did Chuckie become so trusted by these kingpins and remain in their inner circle for so long?
GOLDSMITH: He had known both Jimmy Hoffa and Anthony Giacalone, who was the senior organized crime figure in Detroit, [since childhood]. Giacalone, who turned out to be a leading suspect in Hoffa’s disappearance, had been a friend of Hoffa’s since the 1940s. They were very close, which is not generally known. And they were both very close to Chuck’s mother, Sylvia Pagano, who was a very influential woman in these circles. Chuck’s mother was a go between between Hoffa and organized crime on a whole set of issues, including pension fund loans and other actions. So Chuckie grew up in both of these worlds. He was Hoffa’s closest aide, literally his right-hand man, not his consigliere, but by his side at every moment, starting in ’52. He was so close and so trusted by both of them that he served as a go-between between them and between Hoffa and other organized crime figures. He was intimately involved in everything Hoffa did.