Matthews falsely claimed Democrats accused Alito of being “lenient on the mob”

During MSNBC's October 31 coverage of the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court, Hardball host Chris Matthews repeatedly misrepresented a document about Alito that was circulated by Democrats. Matthews falsely claimed that the document accused Alito of being “lenient on the mob” and made the baseless assertion that, by mentioning a case involving organized crime, Democrats were “go[ing] after [Alito's Italian] ethnicity.” In fact, the document, available here, made no mention of Alito's ethnicity and simply noted that he lost a high-profile mob case -- not that he was “lenient” on anybody.

Though Matthews repeatedly waved the document in front of the cameras, he quoted from it only once -- and that quote in no way supported his description of the document.

Further, Matthews's descriptions of the document grew increasingly inaccurate as the day wore on. In his first reference to it, at roughly 2:30 p.m. ET, he described it as “going after ethnicity”; by the time he interviewed Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean at 5:45 p.m., that inaccurate description had morphed into a completely fabricated claim that the document accused Alito of being “lenient on the mob.”

Matthews's comments were approvingly quoted by the Republican National Committee and by Tim Chapman, a former Republican congressional aide who now writes for the conservative website Conservative weblogs, including Captain's Quarters, and Blogs for Bush, accused Democrats of “smearing” Alito based on the same misrepresentation of the document, and conservative websites WorldNetDaily and NewsMax repeated Matthews's false accusation.

Matthews's misrepresentation of the document began during an exchange with MSNBC host Lisa Daniels:

DANIELS: Joining us right now with more on the nomination of Samuel Alito is Hardball's Chris Matthews. Always good to get your take, Chris. Of course, conservatives extremely happy with this nomination. I guess let's cut to the chase: Do you think that we're going to see a filibuster?

MATTHEWS: Well, I don't know, I mean the Democrats, I've got a, I'm sitting here holding in my hands a pretty disgusting document. This is a, uh, put out for not for attribution, but it comes from the Democrats. They're circulating it, I can say that. And in their complaint sheet against Judge Alito's nomination, the first thing they nail about this Italian-American is he failed to win a mob conviction in a trial 20 years ago or -- way back in '88. In other words, they nail him on not putting, putting some mobst -- Italian mobsters in jail, the Lucchese family. Why would they bring up this ethnically charged issue as the first item they raise against Judge Alito? This is either a bad, a very bad coincidence, or very bad politics. And either way, it's going to hurt them. This document -- not abortion rights, not civil rights, the fact he failed to nail some mobsters back in 1988. And this is at the top of their list of what they got against this guy. Amazingly bad politics.

DANIELS: I mean, why even go to that route? Why not attack him if you're a liberal or you're a Senate Democrat, and you don't like his nomination, why not just openly say, “We fear for abortion rights. We think that -- ”

MATTHEWS: Well, I have to ask that. Why did they put this document out? I'm telling you, this is going to hurt the Democrats for putting this out. They shouldn't be going after ethnicity for an Italian-American with an incredible record like this as a prosecutor, as a judge, as a Yale Law grad. I don't understand this kind of politics, unless they got some thimble-wit over there who accidentally put this at the top of 20 or so items, the fact that, the guy being an Italian-American, he didn't nail a conviction in a mob case in '88, that's, uh, let's see, 12, 17 years ago? They're going after this case 'cause he didn't get a conviction? Interesting.

DANIELS: Who -- what -- the document that you have in your hand, Chris, who signed it?

MATTHEWS: It's called, it's just, I was given it by another pro-, by one of the producers at NBC, it's called, uh, Democrats are circulating this document. And they're trying not to put a signature on it, but I've just put it on it: it's from them.

But the document, posted on Chapman's weblog, makes absolutely no reference to “ethnicity.” None. Neither Alito's “ethnicity” nor that of the “mobsters” in question is mentioned in the document. Nor is the word “Italian” used anywhere in the document; the Lucchese family is described simply as living “in the New Jersey suburbs of New York.” The only person to bring up “ethnicity” in discussing Alito's handling of the case was Matthews. The first person to inject Alito's Italian heritage into a discussion of Alito's handling of a mob case was Matthews.

Further, Matthews's question about why Democrats would bring up the Lucchese case in discussing a nominee “with an incredible record like this as a prosecutor” answers itself: Alito's handling of the Lucchese case could cast doubt on that “incredible record.”

As the Democratic document noted, a contemporaneous Chicago Tribune article described the case as a “stunning defeat” for the government. The August 27, 1988, Tribune article noted that the case, which was “believed to be the nation's longest federal criminal trial,” concluded with the acquittal of all 20 defendants on 77 separate charges after a jury deliberation of 14 hours. An August 26, 1988, United Press International article noted that the defense had rested its case “without producing a single witness.” The Tribune quoted assistant U.S. attorney V. Grady O'Malley concluding that the jury “resented the length (of the trial) and the breadth of the indictment.”

According to the Tribune:

The jury began deliberating ... with a record to consider that included 40,000 pages of transcripts, testimony from 89 witnesses and 850 exhibits, including 400 tapes. The government's star witness was Joseph Alonzo, a diagnosed schizophrenic, an admitted alcoholic and drug addict, and a convicted criminal who had shot one of the defendants -- his cousin -- five times.


U.S. Atty. Samuel Alito, who came to office after the indictment was unsealed, said he had no regrets about the prosecution but in the future would try to keep cases “as short and simple as possible.”

“Despite this loss, the days of the Mafia are numbered,” Alito said.

According to the Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington, the trial surpassed in length the “Pizza Connection” heroin smuggling case, which ended after 17 months in March, 1987.

On Hardball, Matthews brought up the document again at the beginning of a segment featuring Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-UT) and Ben Nelson (D-NE). Among other statements, Matthews described Democrats as “attacking Judge Alito for not being tough enough on the rackets.” But the document said nothing about whether Alito was “tough enough” on organized crime; it simply said he lost the case.

Later on Hardball, during an interview with Dean, Matthews's description of the document evolved further, as he claimed the “first attack [in the document] is that he was lenient on the mob back in an '88 case. He let the Lucchese family get off.” This is a completely false description of the document. Nowhere does it suggest that Alito was “lenient on the mob” or that he “let the Lucchese family get off.” The document simply said Alito lost the case; Matthews claimed the document accused Alito of intentionally losing the case.

Matthews's questioning about the document concluded with his assertion that “everybody” sees “a little ethnic aspect to this”:

MATTHEWS: So, you don't sense a little ethnic aspect to this? The fact that he is Italian-American. They nailed the number one issue against this guy is mob, that he's weak on the mob. You don't see that?

DEAN: No, I don't.

MATTHEWS: I think everybody else does. I see it.

From the October 31 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Senator Hatch, I know a lot of tactics are used to defeat these nominations. The Democrats are circulating a hit sheet headed by the charge that Sam Alito, the president's nominee for associate justice of the Supreme Court, quote, “embarrassed the government by failing to obtain a crucial Mafia conviction back in '88. He failed to convict the Lucchese family in New Jersey.” Why do you think they lead their attack on him with a charge involving the mob?

HATCH: I don't know. But if you look at his career, and you look at his career as a judge, he's as tough on crime as anybody we've ever seen. I don't know what happened in that case, but sometimes cases are difficult to prove.

But let me just say this: That's despicable conduct. That's something that really hits below the belt. It's something that shouldn't happen. And frankly, I'm very upset at any Democrat that would try and throw that kind of stuff around. Alito really is a solid, brilliant jurist who is tough on crime.

MATTHEWS: This hit sheet ignores the fact that within a year he brought a major prosecution to conviction against the Genovese family, knocking down and putting the top guy in the rackets there. And they gave him no credit for that, but yet they point to this acquittal as supposedly significant, as the top issue they raise here on this hit sheet they are circulating today, the Democrats.

HATCH: That shows how hysterical some of the Democrats are. They are just shook up that the president has nominated a very, very top-flight conservative, a man of brilliance and capacity who has worked in public service for over 30 years now and who has been on the federal bench on the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals now for 15 years, doing a very good job. One of the most respected judges in the country. So there's no excuse for that type of irresponsible behavior on the part of some Democrats. I don't know who they, but I hope it's nobody in the Senate.

MATTHEWS: OK. Let me go right now to Senator Nelson. What do you think about this attack by the Democrats, being circulated by the Democrats today? They put it out within 17 minutes of the nomination this morning, attacking Judge Alito for not being tough enough on the rackets.

NELSON: Well, I think that kind of attack just will speak for itself. But we do want to have a process that's both rigorous and fair, because it's a lifetime appointment. We want to make sure we make no mistakes in putting people on the Supreme Court bench. There will be those who will be overeager, those who will do the attacks. There will be cheerleading and attack dogging, and we've got to expect that. But at the end of the day, as this unfolds, I think we'll find out more about Judge Alito, and we'll be able to make an informed decision about whether or not he should sit on the Supreme Court bench.


MATTHEWS: Howard Dean is chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Thank you, sir, for coming in. I know this is unfortunate for you, but somebody in the Democratic party is putting out an attack sheet on this new justice nominee for the Supreme Court, Sam Alito. And the first attack is that he was lenient on the mob back in an '88 case. He let the Lucchese family get off. It says he was an embarrassment to the government. And here is a guy that has been tough on crime. Why start off on that issue?

DEAN: Well, first of all, I didn't put it out, but somebody did, so I'll be responsible for it.

MATTHEWS: Well, it was put out by Democrats, but go on.

DEAN: The president put out a sheet this morning, Republican talking points. One of the things he said was that Judge Alito was a spectacular prosecutor. Well, it turns out he wasn't quite so spectacular, and he lost some important cases. And one of which those guys, in that particular case, those guys all got off, 20 of them, without even putting up a defense witness. So, at least in that particular case that's an example.

MATTHEWS: What about the Genovese case the year later, where he won the conviction and put three big guys away, including the top guy in New Jersey?

DEAN: I think it's great. All I'm trying to say is, you know, this guy is not the best prosecutor since sliced bread. Look --

MATTHEWS: So, you don't sense a little ethnic aspect to this? The fact that he is Italian-American. They nailed the number one issue against this guy is mob, that he's weak on the mob. You don't see that?

DEAN: No, I don't.

MATTHEWS: I think everybody else does. I see it.