TAMPA — Did an elected official seek illegal help to influence an election? Or was it a false accusation made up by a political foe?
Today, those questions fuel the national debate over whether to impeach President Donald Trump in his dealings with Ukraine.
The same questions riveted the people of Tampa 70 years ago, when the topics were city government, the Mafia and a murder.
In the end, the allegations were officially declared a hoax.
"We’ll never know 100 percent for sure who did what,” said Lisa Figueredo, who runs the Tampa Mafia Tour. “But it definitely shows how screwed up this city was.”
It began on Dec. 12, 1948, on 20th Street between Fourth and Fifth Avenues in Ybor City, when someone shot and killed Jimmy Velasco as his wife and child looked on.
Velasco was a member of Tampa’s organized syndicate. But the day after the murder, the Tampa Tribune also described him as a “widely known political worker.” A month later, Velasco’s brothers provided the newspaper with copies of receipts documenting his influence — $28,000 spent on the 1947 Tampa election, $29,000 on the 1948 Hillsborough County election.
The Tribune wrote that the money was provided on behalf of the “syndicate which controls gambling in Tampa."
In its archives, the Tampa Bay Times also has a signed and notarized “manifesto” that the brothers wrote for distribution to the people of Tampa, though it is unclear it ever was. The manifesto says the syndicate was run by Santo Trafficante Jr. and included Hillsborough County Sheriff Hugh Culbreath and Tampa Police Chief J.L. Eddings.
The two lawmen asked Velasco for help influencing the elections’ outcome, according to the manifesto, including Culbreath’s 1948 re-election bid. The sheriff won.
The manifesto said that Velasco was murdered, in part, because the syndicate feared he was growing too powerful.
Neither the Tribune article nor the manifesto raised any questions about whether the campaign money was spent legally and there is no report of votes bought or ballot boxes stuffed. Instead, it appears, the money paid for newspaper ads, campaign offices and poll workers.
Still, organized crime would have received favors in return — protection for their illegal gambling operations or government contracts for friends, said author Scott Deitche, who has written extensively on the local Mafia.
Then, in February 1949, the so-called “pay-off” list was released. The Times still has a copy in its archives.
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The typed, one-page list was said to document one month’s worth of bribes Velasco delivered to local officials. The Tampa City Council called for a grand jury investigation. County solicitor V.R. Fisher agreed to assist.
According to the list, $7,000 went to the sheriff, $3,200 to the police chief, and additional money to the mayor, City Council and county solicitor.
“They were investigating themselves,” Figueredo, the Mafia tour leader, said with a laugh.
Next to the name of Mayor Curtis Hixon is listed, provocatively, “board and all the departments Christmas.” County Solicitor Fisher’s name is marked only with question marks.
Bribes to the City Council are more specific. Councilman Julio Pelaez is said to have received $3,900 for “personal” and a “new car.” Each city council member got liquor for Christmas, the list said. And Councilman Joe Rodriguez was given $140, with the notation, “help me personal and drive our car each day,” according to the list.
In a bizarre twist, it was Rodriguez who released the pay-off list. He claimed to have been friends with Velasco and previously told him to keep such records for tax filings.
The grand jury and county solicitor decided that the list was a fraud.
Rodriguez typed the list, they determined, not Velasco, creating it after the murder “with the sole purpose” being “to embarrass public officials and citizens whose names were on the list. He included his own name as a cover, they found.
Among the reasons for the finding: Velasco’s family knew nothing about the list before Rodriguez released it and nothing it contained was actually tax deductible.
Joe Provenzano was arrested in Velasco’s murder but he was acquitted.
In 1950, the Velasco brothers were arrested for hiring a hitman to kill Sheriff Culbreath, County Solicitor Fisher, mobster Trafficante and other members of the syndicate.
Councilman Rodriguez was accused of delivering the money for the hit. No one was killed and the case ended in a mistrial.
In 1951, the federal government released a nationwide report on organized crime. Tampa was named one of the most corrupt cities in the country and the sheriff was accused of taking bribes.
“I don’t know if the list was real or a political stunt,” author Deitche said. But the federal government confirmed that public officials "were indeed taking payoffs from the mob.”