Posted: July 13, 2005
I HEARD YOU PICKET NEWSPAPERS
By Celia Cohen
Dead men do tell tales, or at least men who know they are dying do. Frank Sheeran, the colorful thug who once ran a Delaware Teamsters union and confessed to killing Jimmy Hoffa, told a lot of tales before he died in 2003.
He told some of them during his last years to Charles P. Brandt, a Delaware lawyer-turned-writer who had been a state prosecutor before switching to criminal defense work. Brandt met Sheeran after representing one of his cohorts in 1980.
Brandt put the tales in I Heard You Paint Houses, a bloody and sensational book in Sheeran's voice, talking about Hoffa's disappearance, now almost 30 years ago on July 30, 1975, as well as the Teamsters and the mob. The title is underworld lingo for a hit -- because blood splatters.
Brandt, who knows something about cross-examination and criminal investigations, is convinced that he got to the truth about what happened to Hoffa, because Sheeran wanted to confess, even if his route to getting there was "denying and lying." Not everyone is as convinced as Brandt is.
The book was published in 2004 and recently reissued in paperback. It has been part of a rebirth of some of the great mysteries of the times, including who killed Jimmy Hoffa and who was Deep Throat, even if the greatest of them all, who shot JFK, is still out there.
Brandt's book also touched on a much more obscure Delaware mystery when it veered briefly into local politics. The timing here is also good, because it is about the famous 1972 election for the U.S. Senate, easily the biggest upset in state politics in the 20th Century.
In that race Joseph R. Biden Jr. rose out of his first term on the New Castle County Council as a 29-year-old Democratic upstart to beat J. Caleb Boggs, a beloved Republican campaigner who had been in office since 1947 as a congressman, two-term governor and senator.
Biden -- now 62, only a year younger than Boggs was then -- is in the early stages of a possible presidential run in 2008, so anything that happened to him before matters all over again.
Biden's ambitions, however, are not what has Delaware's political class e-mailing one another an excerpt from Brandt's book. Their interest is much more parochial. For some Republicans in particular, it has to do with plugging a hole in something they knew -- or thought they knew -- about the Senate election, now 33 years in the rearview mirror.
The 1972 campaign season was as harrowing as it gets. Richard Nixon was running for re-election against George McGovern, who was so liberal that state Democrats worried he could take their ticket down with him. The Republicans were desperate to save Gov. Russell W. Peterson, who battled through a primary just to keep the nomination and eventually lost to Democrat Sherman W. Tribbitt. The 18-year-olds were voting for the first time, and the Vietnam War was a divisive misery.
In the U.S. Senate race, Cale Boggs was a reluctant candidate. He had wanted to retire, but Nixon himself flew by helicopter to Delaware to talk him out of it, because otherwise the Republicans would have had a war between U.S. Rep. Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont, later to be governor, and Wilmington Mayor Harry G. "Hal" Haskell Jr., both of whom thought they deserved to succeed Boggs.
The Republicans were so preoccupied with the governor's race they paid little attention to the Senate contest with that no-name Democrat in it. The months ticked by with Boggs dragging his feet about campaigning while Biden boyishly charmed voters and put together a crackerjack operation.
Belatedly the Republicans realized Boggs could lose. To defend him, they came up with a campaign piece showing a picture of the moon with the caption, "The only thing Joe Biden hasn't promised you," and planned to distribute it the Saturday before the election as an insert in the News Journal papers.
Only the papers never went out. They were stopped by a labor strike. The Republicans tried to hand out the campaign literature house by house in a dismal rain that weekend and only got about a third of the job done. For decades afterward, they nursed suspicions that the strike was politically timed.
"As a young political neophyte, trudging through the streets of Newark, clutching the soggy Cale Boggs inserts, trying to get the 'truth' out to as many people as possible, I knew in my heart that the strike was more than merely coincidental," said Priscilla B. Rakestraw, now the Republican national committeewoman.
With a wink from the grave, Frank Sheeran says the Republicans knew what they knew. In a chapter entitled, "He Needed a Favor and That was That," Sheeran talks about a visit to his union office from "this prominent lawyer I knew" and someone who worked at the newspapers:
"The lawyer explained to me that Senator Boggs had put together some ads that were going to run in an advertising insert," Sheeran says. "The lawyer didn't want those newspapers to be delivered."
Sheeran offers to hire some people to set up a picket line -- "They were people nobody would mess with" -- to prevent the delivery, and they did. "I have no way of knowing if Joe Biden knew if that picket line thing was done on purpose on his behalf. If he did know he never let on to me," Sheeran says.
Sheeran's account has Republicans feeling as though they knew it all along. "Did I believe then and is my belief validated? You bet," Rakestraw said.
Still, this is Frank Sheeran talking. Maybe he did try to throw a federal election, and maybe not. If he did it, did Biden know about it? Who was that lawyer, anyway?
Richard P. "Dixie" Sanger, then the News Journal editor, was skeptical. He remembered the strike -- "They actually busted a few heads because the other unions didn't want to honor the picket lines" -- but he questioned whether politics and Sheeran really were behind it.
"We had a lot of labor problems. That might have been coincidental," Sanger said.
Whatever happened, Biden knew nothing about it, he relayed through Margaret Aitken, his press secretary.
As for the identity of the lawyer, one name came repeatedly to mind among more than a half-dozen people who still care about what happened back then. It was O. Francis Biondi.
Now retired, Frank Biondi remains legendary for his legal and political skills as a former Wilmington city solicitor, a past Delaware State Bar Association president, a Democrat who was an essential adviser to governors of both parties, and his crowning glory as an architect of the landmark Financial Center Development Act, which brought the banks to Delaware.
Biondi was an attorney for business interests as well as for the Teamsters when Sheeran was in charge, and he was a tough-minded political operative capable of delivering corporate contributions or muscling up votes. No wonder his name kept coming up.
"I asked Biondi point-blank at the Wilmington Club after reading the book, and he said no," said Hal Haskell, the ex-mayor. "I think pinning it on Francis would be unfair."
Biondi said no again in a telephone interview Wednesday. He said he was busy with Tribbitt's gubernatorial campaign at the time. He had read the book but discounted a lot of it, and no, he did not have any ideas himself who the lawyer was.
"My recollection when I read the book was, who the hell did that?" Biondi said.
Brandt knows who the lawyer is, but he is keeping the name to himself. "I'm just not ever going to say. Sheeran did not want me to," he said.
Biden beat Boggs by a scant 3,000 votes. In an election that close, any number of factors could make a difference -- the 18-year-old vote, the fallout from Vietnam, Biden's organization, the flagging Boggs himself, or even campaign literature that never got delivered.
"When you win by 3,000 votes, it's an auction," Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, a campaign worker who later became Biden's chief of staff, once said. Anything could do it.
Frank Sheeran says he killed Hoffa. W. Mark Felt says he was Deep Throat. Who was that lawyer, anyway?