FBI Docs: George Steinbrenner Thought The FBI Was The "Nearest Thing To Perfection"

When we published my October profile of Howie Spira, the gambler who tangled with George Steinbrenner and wound up in prison, I knew the story wasn't over. In the course of my reporting, I'd submitted a few Freedom of Information Act requests to the FBI. These things can take a while for the federales to process. Lots of redacting and such. Recently, though, I got a partial response to one of them—a request for information about Steinbrenner and his association with the FBI.

The first batch of documents I received ran almost 700 pages. They were from a secret investigation the FBI's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR)—a quasi-internal affairs unit—conducted into Steinbrenner's "improper" relationship with the FBI's Tampa field office. To understand the significance of the OPR investigation, you'll need some context. Here it is: In 1983, Steinbrenner moved the American Shipbuilding Company he'd inherited from his father from Cleveland to Tampa to avoid dealing with ornery union workers. Steinbrenner palled around in Cleveland with at least one FBI agent who later worked for the Yankees owner. In Tampa, it was more of the same but on a bigger scale. Steinbrenner hosted FBI agents in his skybox at Buccaneers games, promised them jobs, feted them at cocktail parties, and gave them discounts at the hotel he owned in Tampa. When the head of the Tampa field office retired, Steinbrenner hired him.

Steinbrenner had long had an affinity for lawmen, especially FBI agents. The records we received indicate that Steinbrenner considered the FBI the "nearest thing to perfection" that existed. In the world. Ever. Which is scary. He loved his G-men and he showered them with affection. The quid pro quo? Tampa FBI agents did unofficial background checks on people for Steinbrenner, which may have violated the law. They also helped expedite Steinbrenner's application for a presidential pardon. A little more context: Steinbrenner was a convicted felon. In 1974, he pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign donations to Richard Nixon's re-election campaign. After that, Steinbrenner tried to secure a pardon. But he didn't have much luck until Tampa FBI agents got involved. In 1989, Ronald Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner.

After The Boss died last year, the FBI released hundreds of pages of documents about Steinbrenner's illegal campaign contributions and his appeals for a pardon. You can sift through them on the FBI's website. But information about Steinbrenner yet lurked in the FBI's files. That's the stuff we have now. And we have it because of the guy mentioned at the top of the post—Howie Spira, a gambler with mafia ties who once worked for Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield.

A final bit of background: In the '80s, Spira, sold dirt on Winfield to Steinbrenner for $40,000. But Spira wanted more money. When Steinbrenner wouldn't give it to him, Spira threatened to go public with tapes of their phone conversations. (You can read about this affair in my original story.) In 1990, Spira was arrested in the Bronx by FBI agents. Tampa FBI agents. Spira was later convicted of extorting Steinbrenner, who was later banned from baseball for his role in the scandal. During Spira's trial, defense attorneys alleged that Steinbrenner used his FBI contacts to pressure the U.S. Attorney's Office to indict Spira. The New York Times wrote a story about it. And that is how the OPR investigation came to be (lest you think the FBI was proactive in its self-policing).

Which brings us to the documents in the investigation. There have been mentions made of Steinbrenner's cozy relationship with the Tampa FBI. The details, however, have always been scant. These documents reveal a little more about the association between Steinbrenner and the FBI. We'll publish the best nuggets in the coming weeks. The first document is attached below. It's a secret internal FBI memorandum that lays out the allegations against Steinbrenner and the Tampa field office, along with the results of the OPR investigation. It's 43 pages and heavily redacted, but it should make for some splendid holiday reading.

A few pages to note in the document:

Page 8: Three former FBI special agents talked to the press after Spira's attorneys claimed their client was indicted "as part of an effort by the FBI to help Steinbrenner defend against a probe being conducted by the Commissioner of Baseball." The OPR, unsurprisingly, found this allegation unfounded. But a former FBI man told Deadspin this year that Spira never should have been prosecuted for his actions.

Page 14: "Steinbrenner believes the FBI is the 'nearest thing to perfection' that exists." Steinbrenner asks for FBI background information on several people, including an enormous, violent "redneck"—about whom more later.

Page 34: One former special agent states that Steinbrenner giving the feds so many free tickets to sporting events contributed to the "dry rot in the Tampa office," adding that the problem is only aggravated when the agents receive free tickets from an "ex-con" like Steinbrenner.

Pages 35-37: Steinbrenner invites FBI Director William Sessions to a "small gathering" at the University Club in Tampa, then springs the news on Sessions that he is to be the main speaker at the dinner that night, which now has 125 guests. Sessions has to improvise a speech about the FBI's anti-drug programs.