People who remember Jackie Presser when he was a wild young kid in the Cleveland suburb of Glenville, attending the same continuation school as future Mafia hit man and informant Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno, didn't think highly of him if they thought of him at all.
"He was a nothing," recalled one Cleveland neighbor. "If you ask, did I expect him to end up in the jug, I say yeah. But to end up with President Reagan and the bigwigs and intelligentsia, no."
Jackie's father, Bill Presser, was an old-school union boss whose powerful physical stature earned him the nickname "Plug." Jackie, a flabby man in body and temperment, was dubbed "Fluff." By clinging to his father's coattails, though, Jackie eventually was pulled up into the company of the most powerful men in America.
James Neff, now a senior editor of Cleveland Magazine, weaves together his damning tale with information gathered from FBI, Labor Department and grand-jury documents, and through interviews with dozens of sources. He reconstructs a few conversations where the documentation allows, but for the most part eschews dramatic simplification, constructing his story by unraveling one thread after another with precise reportage, then carefully weaving it all back together, documenting everything with footnotes. Watching this Gordian knot of Mafia and Teamster entanglements come undone is tedious at times, but Neff rewards readers' patience with a portrait of pervasive corruption that should concern anyone who cares about the way this country works.
According to Neff, Presser was under the thumb of Cleveland crime figures from the beginning of his sleazy career, and grew increasingly important to the mob as he gained a voice in how the Teamsters' huge Central States Pension Fund--"the Mafia's bank"--made loans.
Later, Neff asserts, Presser began bolstering his position by secretly snitching to the FBI on his Mafia and union enemies (and friends, on occasion). This potentially deadly "high-wire act," coupled with a slick, union-financed public-relations campaign and a growing web of connections, paid off.
Neff describes, for example, how Presser cronies persuaded attorney Roy Cohn, of McCarthy-era fame, to intervene on Presser's behalf with the Newhouse family, publishers of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The result, Neff reports, was a misleading front-page article that negated a previous investigative story on Presser.
Even as information about his mob connections circulated among law enforcers, though, Presser managed to secure a position on the Reagan Administration's transition team, a voice in selecting the next secretary of Labor, and continued administration influence.