WASHINGTON — The FBI released documents Monday stating that New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner assisted the agency in two investigations – one of them apparently a terrorism probe – in the years leading up to his pardon by President Ronald Reagan on a campaign-contributions conviction.
The Associated Press and other news organizations requested the FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act following Steinbrenner's death in July. The first release was made last December. The two releases combined totaled about 800 pages.
In a newly released 1988 FBI memo, the FBI said that it "supports the contention that George Steinbrenner has provided the FBI with valuable assistance."
Seven months later, Reagan pardoned Steinbrenner for his convictions in a case involving campaign donations to President Richard Nixon and other politicians.
The documents, included in the second release of Steinbrenner's FBI file, also show that he blamed his illegal corporate campaign contribution to Nixon on bad legal advice.
The memo disclosed Monday described one probe in which Steinbrenner assisted as "an undercover operation" that ultimately led to an arrest, prosecution and conviction. The FBI described the other investigation simply as "a sensitive security matter." The FBI deleted all specifics about the probes before releasing the bureau's file on Steinbrenner, who died last year.
A separate FBI document identifies the cases as "two national security matters" and says Steinbrenner assisted the bureau from 1978 to 1983.
A 1987 letter by Steinbrenner's lawyers about his assistance to the FBI says that the Yankees owner "knows that he placed the lives of his family and himself in jeopardy through being involved in a terrorist matter."
Separately, the 1988 FBI memo says that Steinbrenner agreed to use Yankee Stadium for the staging of over 500 gambling raids against a major organized crime syndicate in New York City. A different site was ultimately chosen.
Steinbrenner pleaded guilty in 1974 to a conspiracy to funnel corporate campaign contributions to politicians, and to making a "false and misleading" explanation of a $25,000 donation to Nixon's campaign and trying to influence and intimidate employees of his shipbuilding company to give that false information to a grand jury.
Five years after his conviction, Steinbrenner sought a pardon.
"Applicant advised that this corporate contribution was made after he received legal advice from corporate counsel, both inside and outside (Steinbrenner's) American Shipbuilding Company, that this corporate contribution was legal," stated a 1979 FBI memo, following a bureau interview with Steinbrenner. The memo also quotes Steinbrenner as saying he wouldn't have made the contribution had he known it was illegal, and that his lawyers should have been more thorough in their legal research.
Steinbrenner also claimed he never told any employee to lie about the corporate campaign donation, nor suggest that they should repeat his version of the facts.
"Applicant stated his past conviction has been and continues to be a source of embarrassment to him," the memo said.
The files also include his application for a pardon, in which the Yankees owner says the conviction prevented him from voting, hurt his business interests, and limited his participation in civic, charitable and community affairs. He argued that a pardon "would permit me to contribute more of my services to the community."
Then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Steinbrenner for two years after his 1974 plea, calling him "ineligible and incompetent" to have any connection with a baseball team.
"Attempting to influence employees to behave dishonestly is the kind of conduct which, if ignored by baseball, would undermine the public's confidence in our game," Kuhn wrote in a 12-page ruling. The suspension was later reduced to 15 months.
December's release showed that Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox expressed "extreme interest" in the criminal investigation of Steinbrenner. Then-FBI Director Clarence M. Kelley relayed Cox's concern in a memo on Aug. 16, 1973, to the bureau's Cleveland office, saying agents needed to make sure the probe received "the same, immediate and preferred handling" as other criminal cases then growing from the Watergate scandal.
Another FBI memo said the "investigation is to be afforded highest priority and security."