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Burden of Proof

Phil and Tom Kuntz Discuss 'The Sinatra Files'

Aired July 3, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JACK VALENTI, PRESIDENT, MOTION PICTURE ACADEMY: Inside him there was a collision of contradictions: generous, loving, warm, if you needed any help he was there. But there was also a dark menace lurking just beneath the surface. I think that's one of the reasons why he was so mesmerizing, is that he had this conflict in character.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, JULY 18, 1972)

FRANK SINATRA, SINGER: But I never had anything to do with them businesswise, rarely, rarely socially. No connection, really, whatsoever.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, MAY 15, 1998)

BILL ZEHME, AUTHOR: The man had more grace than any celebrity we have in our time. Isn't that odd? I mean, yet he's thought to be a bully, and yet the most graceful bully you'll ever know.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Under the watchful eye of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, mega-star Frank Sinatra spent decades under the suspicion of being a draft-dodger, a communist, and even a front man for organized crime in America. Today on BURDEN OF PROOF, find out what's in the FBI's Sinatra files.

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

For most of his life, Frank Sinatra's celebrity life was chronicled by the Hollywood press. But Sinatra wasn't trusted in factions of Washington, sparking interest from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and J. Edgar Hoover.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CO-HOST: After his death in 1998, the 1,200 page FBI dossier was released in response to a freedom of Information Act request. The details of this report are the basis for a new book, "The Sinatra Files."

And joining us today from New York is Phil Kuntz, co-author of the new book on Sinatra. Also in our New York bureau, his brother and co-author, Tom Kuntz.

Phil, let me go first to you. Why did you write this book?

PHIL KUNTZ, CO-AUTHOR, "THE SINATRA FILES": Well, because the FBI files on Frank Sinatra bring together two of the most interesting people of the last century. J. Edgar Hoover, on the one hand, ran the FBI for many decades and became, very, very almost voyeuristic at times in his surveillance of celebrities. And in Sinatra, you have the biggest celebrity, arguably, of the last half of the 20th century, and one of its more interesting figures both because of his connections to underworld figures, and because of his connections to politicians.

VAN SUSTEREN: Before starting a brotherly fight, who came up with the idea, you or your brother?

TOM KUNTZ, CO-AUTHOR, "THE SINATRA FILES": It was kind of a no- brainer. I mean, we saw, you know...

P. KUNTZ: Which means it was Tommy's idea.

(LAUGHTER)

COSSACK: Oh, they're starting already. Tommy, let me get to you, give you a chance to get even. What was it about Frank Sinatra that Hoover found so interesting?

T. KUNTZ: Well, I mean, he was -- during World War II when he was a rising young star, he attracted a lot of fans and admiration, and he was a teen idol. He was like Michael Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio all rolled into one. But he also started a lot of resentment because we were in wartime and he avoided the draft for a -- he had a 4-F exemption. But a lot of people resented that. He was making millions thrilling millions of teenage girls while most able-bodied American men his age were off fighting for American democracy.

COSSACK: But, Tom, wasn't his -- wasn't it legitimate his 4-F. He claimed he had some kind of a punctured eardrum. But, in fact, he did have a punctured eardrum.

T. KUNTZ: He had an ear injury sustained at birth and the FBI got a tip that he had bribed his way out of the draft. It got this tip from the columnist Walter Winchell, and they investigated whether, in fact, there was anything untoward in his draft exemption. They found out it was legitimate, but they also found out that Sinatra had changed his story to draft officials on questionnaires. He had repeatedly said that he was free of any mental or physical infirmities whatsoever. But when he showed up at his physical, he claimed not only the ear ailment, which was bona fide, but also to be neurotic and afraid to be in crowds, which my brother and I found to be a little bit implausible. VAN SUSTEREN: Phil, set the record straight: Did -- was Frank Sinatra a draft-dodger or not? After getting all your Freedom of information Act information, do you conclude he was or was not?

P. KUNTZ: I think he -- what he told the Draft Board officials clearly indicates that he didn't want to serve. I don't think that you could call him a draft-dodger. That's a rather strong term. He clearly -- there's no evidence that he paid a bribe to get out of the draft. I think there's plenty of evidence, though, that he want to wanted to make sure that he didn't get drafted.

VAN SUSTEREN: Phil, take me back to the beginning of when you and your brother decided to write this book. Who made the Freedom of Information Act request?

P. KUNTZ: Well, it becomes -- right now, whenever a celebrity from this era of any renowned dies, the FBI, almost as a matter of course, processes those documents for release because they know they're going to get all sorts of Freedom of Information Act requests. When Frank Sinatra died, I don't know how many they got, but I'm told they got numerous ones. Mine was, you know -- and anybody who wants it after the initial one is filed, you just have to file a normal perfunctory one.

COSSACK: Tom, let me -- in terms of Sinatra's association with the mob, there were a lot of allegations made that he was acting as a front man for the mob. In fact, he knew several members of the mob quite well. Do you think he was involved?

T. KUNTZ: I think there was guilt by association there, but guilt by association is not a crime. And the FBI never -- the files show -- never got the goods on Sinatra. He did hang around with mobsters, he liked associating with tough guys, and tough guys liked associating with him. In fact, they owned a lot of the clubs in which Sinatra performed, so Sinatra had an interest in being friendly with these characters. The problem with the FBI arose when Sinatra started hanging around with not only people in low places, but also in high places; notably, John F. Kennedy and subsequent presidents. This invited a lot of scrutiny and it made the files grow thicker and thicker.

VAN SUSTEREN: Phil, let me go back to you again. Once again, to set the record straight, you heard your brother Tom talk about the mob connection. In your investigative reporting in your book, is there any indication or any suggestions to you that Frank Sinatra did anything criminal as a consequence of his relationship with mobsters?

P. KUNTZ: Well, actually, it's funny you should ask that because they had just this very debate about one point in the files. Frank Sinatra was interviewed by some IRS agents and was asked a number of things, one of which was about whether or not he attended a party with Sam Giancana, the Chicago mob boss. And it turned out that Sinatra denied going to this party. It turned out they had evidence that he had gone to the party and there was a large debate about whether or not this particular lie constituted a lie serious enough to violate the federal false claims statute. And, in the end, they decided it wasn't serious enough, that they had a bona fide case to make, but it wasn't worth making.

I think you could think back in recent history of many episodes on this show whether or not that debate is still ongoing.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, for the benefits of our viewers, take us back. Tell us who Sam Giancana is and why he's significant.

P. KUNTZ: Sam Giancana was the boss of the Chicago mob. He was -- definitely hung out with Frank Sinatra a lot. He also became involved in President Kennedy's reelection -- excuse me -- President Kennedy's election campaign in 1960 and helped get out the vote in both Chicago and West Virginia -- using his political and union clout to get out the vote. That -- they did that in hopes that Frank Sinatra, if Kennedy got elected, would get the FBI to back off their anti-mob crackdown. There is some evidence in the book to suggest that Frank Sinatra tried to get Robert Kennedy to go easy on Sam Giancana. That didn't work, however, and the mob -- there is tapes of the mob just venting their furry at the fact that Frank Sinatra, after all they did to help get Kennedy elected, couldn't get the FBI to back off.

COSSACK: Tom, in fact, there's one other allegation that Frank Sinatra was involved somehow in the Communist Party. Now, initially, he was a person that apparently had some -- was at least considered a liberal or perhaps not conservative, and then he ended up a strong supporter of President Reagan.

T. KUNTZ: Yes. In the Roosevelt administration, he was referred to -- or just in the post-war period, he was referred to by a right- wing congressman as "Mrs. Roosevelt in pants." He had a lot of leftist affiliations. He had a professional relationship with one of the Hollywood 10 blacklisted writers who wrote the script for the film, "The House I live In," an anti-bigotry film for which Sinatra won a special Academy Award.

But after an estrangement with the Kennedy White House, after Hoover tipped off Bobby Kennedy to Sinatra's shady affiliations with the mob, Sinatra palled it up with Republican presidents. He had an affinity for power. I don't know if he -- his ideology changed over years, and, of course, other people have seen ideological changes as well, like Ronald Reagan was a liberal when he was young. But Sinatra had a -- more than anything else, he had an affinity for power, whether it was legitimate or illegitimate.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, we're going to take a break. Up next, why was J. Edgar Hoover so interested in the personal life of Frank Sinatra? And what did he hope to learn by trailing the popular crooner. Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

On December 8, 1963, the son of Frank Sinatra was kidnapped at age 19. Frank Sinatra Jr. was released four days later on his father's birthday. The kidnappers were sentenced to 75 years plus life, but were paroled from prison in less than five years.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers: you can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log-on to CNN.com/Burden. We now provide a live video feed, Monday through Friday, at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show, and even join our chat room.

VAN SUSTEREN: More than two years after his death, Frank Sinatra is now the subject of a book on the FBI and its secret dossier of the entertainer. According to authors Tom and Phil Kuntz, J. Edgar Hoover dispatched FBI agents to investigate Sinatra's alleged ties to the mob.

Phil, in your book, the only crime that I see that Frank Sinatra was facing was a 1938 arrest for seduction under a false promise of marriage, which was later changed to adultery, which was later dropped. Your subtitle is "Life of an American Icon Under Government Surveillance." I asked you to set the record straight on Frank Sinatra, how about on J. Edgar Hoover, did he go too far? did he step over the line?

P. KUNTZ: I think it is clear that in, especially as regards to the Communist, you know, the investigations into whether he was a Communist, that went too far. Many of the memos are peppered with some rather gratuitous references to Frank Sinatra's, you know, adventures with women, including, in a couple of cases, prostitutes.

VAN SUSTEREN: But why was Hoover investigating that, Phil? I mean, like what, you know, as I read your book, I must -- to me, it is like why were they spending the time and money on Frank Sinatra? And it really seems to be the government overstepping?

P. KUNTZ: It is extraordinary. I mean, there is one memo in there recounting an encounter that he had with a prostitute who got too drunk to perform her services and wanted her $100, and that was deemed worthy of a two-paragraph memo that went at bottom of one of the memos, it was somebody scrawled "director advised." Why that -- the taxpayers' money needed to be spent on that is beyond me.

But, on the other hand, looking at it from, especially when you got to the point where Sinatra was hanging out both with mobsters, Sam Giancana principally, and John Kennedy, soon to be president of the United States, I don't think anyone can argue that a guy who is simultaneously having both of those sort of relationships shouldn't be watched.

VAN SUSTEREN: Boy, you know, I may take you to task on that, though, Phil. I'll tell you, yes, you may be right, but I guess when I read your new book and see the extent of how much the FBI trailed him over such a long period of time, that to isolate one thing that certainly may be suspicious, may warrant the rest though, you know, is an outrage to me. P. KUNTZ: But, Greta, look at what a big favor -- this is going to horrify you to hear me say this, but what a big favor Hoover did us. Hoover warned the attorney general, his brother, that the president was hanging out with a woman who was Judith Campbell, this is in the book, who is simultaneously calling the White House and John Kennedy, excuse me the White House and Sam Giancana. And then, he also warned him that Frank Sinatra was hanging out with mobsters and, at the time, the mob was trying to get Frank Sinatra to get the administration to back off.

Hoover told Bobby Kennedy about that, he didn't further advertise it. Bobby Kennedy took that information and the president subsequently backed away from Frank Sinatra and Judith Campbell. I think you can make a very good argument that he did us a favor because the mob was very close to infiltrating the White House.

COSSACK; Tom, I hear what your brother says, but I must tell you, in reading your book, I found there was a sort of a fascination with watching these memos that were written, and you almost get the sense that there was almost something of a salacious nature, almost a voyeuristic nature that Hoover, who has all of this control at his power, almost gets from looking into the life of a powerful figure, of somehow being more powerful than that powerful figure. Do you think that comes across?

T. KUNTZ: Well, it may come across, to some people. I think I would let readers judge for themselves what Hoover was up to with, you know, delving into all these salacious aspects of Sinatra's life.

I do think, in the Kennedy period, JFK had well-known reckless streak, that shows up in the files, and you couldn't -- you couldn't ignore that. A presidential aspirant, later a president, pursuing reckless sex parties, with an entertainer who had connections with the mob. You can't ignore that stuff.

COSSACK; But, Tom, let me just suggest that perhaps Hoover was also gathering these files for the legitimate reason that you just suggest, but as well as also to give himself a great deal of power, by having control over these files.

P. KUNTZ: We all have dual motives in everything we do, and I'm sure J. Edgar Hoover, when he wrote those memos to Bobby Kennedy, I'm sure he was both thinking that, well, I ought to tell somebody about this because that is a serious matter, and, by the way, that probably wouldn't hurt securing me further in the job that nobody can fire me from.

VAN SUSTEREN: Isn't that a little dirty, Phil? Isn't that Hoover almost -- it is like a blackmail to president, you know, keep me in the job, and I won't spill the beans.

P. KUNTZ: Well, Greta, put yourself in J. Edgar Hoover's position, if you had heard that the mob was trying to infiltrate the White House through the president's buddy, Frank Sinatra, and that the president was cavorting with a woman who was also cavorting with mobsters, and you were J. Edgar Hoover, what would you do with that information?

VAN SUSTEREN: I wouldn't be in his bedroom, basically, which is what I seem to get from your book is that J. Edgar Hoover was almost in Sinatra's bedroom?

P. KUNTZ: But would you give the attorney general a heads up?

COSSACK: I understand that.

VAN SUSTEREN: I probably would.

COSSACK: Let me just say to you that, of course, that is legitimate information that absolutely has to be gathered, but I think the other side, and I think if you -- I think your book points it out as well as it can be pointed out, is this sort of incessant gathering of information that really, some of which, is very important, some of which is just ridiculous, and a lot of which is just how you -- from what we know about Hoover, to clearly insulate Hoover and protect him, and protect his power. I mean, Hoover was very a powerful man because of these things, because he had the keys to the kingdom, because he could bug people.

VAN SUSTEREN: And let me just add one other thing, and let me go to you, Tom, on this, and your book, even on the back of your jacket, you talk about the fact that there is this FBI cooperation with journalists to do this spying. And boy, doesn't that undermine sort of, you know, our occupation a little bit? If the FBI is up to their eyeballs with journalists.

T. KUNTZ: It sure does. Sinatra had a lifelong a hatred and paranoia about the press, but, just because he was paranoid doesn't mean he was crazy. I mean, behind Sinatra's back, journalists were passing unsubstantiated tips about Sinatra to the FBI. Walter Winchell, for example, on the draft dodging tip. And the FBI, on several occasions, was helping out helping out journalists with information on Sinatra.

I want to go back to the point you made, one of the things we have to remember about these files is that they are like a time capsule, they are not only a record, a shadow biography of Sinatra's life, but they are also a mirror of the times.

VAN SUSTEREN: Except for the point that, in your book you even have the blackened out parts from the Freedom of Information Act people. I mean, they don't even give you everything. I mean, something they are still holding back.

P. KUNTZ: Well, there is something to be said for privacy. They are protecting their sources there, many of whom may still be alive.

COSSACK: All right...

T. KUNTZ: One of the things about files is they are a case study in how Hoover managed to manipulate. We agree that they are like a case study how Hoover managed and manipulated information at his disposal. COSSACK: Let me just cut you off there because we've got to take a break. When we come back: The role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is keeping tabs on celebs part of its original mission? Stay with us.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: On July 19, 1966 Frank Sinatra married what famous Peyton Place soap opera star?

A: Mia Farrow. They divorced in 1968.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: For decades, the FBI kept tabs on entertainer Frank Sinatra. The secret dossier made available through a Freedom of Information Act request totals more than 1200 pages.

Phil, I think your book is most interesting, at least to me, as almost a history book. It, to me, it chronicles and brings back to life that time in this country when perhaps there was extreme paranoia, and in some ways caused by Hoover.

Now, you say that Hoover was a guy that had a right to investigate the mob, but it is also well-known that Hoover didn't believe there was a mob.

P. KUNTZ: He didn't believe there was a mob until, actually, conveniently for the purposes of this book, right in mid to late '50s when evidence of it slammed him over the head, and he could no longer deny it.

At that point, he instituted what he called a top hoodlum program, and it is through that program, him watching figures like Sam Giancana and others, that Sinatra came into their -- under their radarscope.

VAN SUSTEREN: Tom, I don't want to fuel a hysteria that big brother is watching, but your book certainly has big brother watching Frank Sinatra. How many other celebrities out there like Frank Sinatra, do you think, are under the eyes of the FBI, at least Hoover's FBI?

T. KUNTZ: I have no idea. But, we can be sure that very few are this large. I mean, Sinatra was the dominant entertainer of the 20th century. And the FBI, Hoover's FBI, watched him across four decades. That is, you know, that is a period of time -- twice the length of time of Elvis's career. This is a shadow biography that we're not likely to see again any time soon because we are not likely to see another Sinatra any time soon.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right. Well, it is a great book, "The Sinatra Files," but that is all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, and thank for you watching. COSSACK: And join us again next time for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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