As an attorney in Nevada in 1971, Paul Laxalt wrote a personal letter to the White House urging Richard Nixon to release former Teamsters Union chief Jimmy Hoffa from jail because Laxalt believed he was a "political prisoner." Laxalt told Nixon that Hoffa could not be "the criminal type so often depicted by the national press."

Today, as the junior senator from Nevada, Laxalt is Ronald Reagan's closest friend on Capitol Hill. He was considered as a possible running mate for Reagan in 1980, though some Republicans reportedly feared Laxalt's Las Vegas connections might hurt the party's ticket. Laxalt's January 1971 letter opens, "Dear President Dick" and relies heavily on information provided by Chicago insurance executive and former Teamsters' pension fund consultant Allen Dorfman.

"The other day I had an extended discussion with Al Dorfman of the Teamsters, with whom I've worked closely the past few years," wrote Laxalt in 1971, the year after he decided not to seek a second term as Nevada's governor and a year before Dorfman was convicted of conspiring to receive a $55,000 kickback for arranging a $1.5 million loan from the Teamsters' pension fund. "He described for me in detail the history of Jim Hoffa's difficulties with the Justice Department.

"This conversation, which described in detail the personal vendetta that Bobby Kennedy had against Hoffa, together with other information provided me over the years, leads me to the inevitable conclusion that Jim is a victim of Kennedy's revenge. This, in turn, convinces me that through vindictive action he has been and continues to be a political prisoner."

Hoffa entered prison in 1967 to serve a 13-year sentence for mail fraud and jury tampering.

In his letter, Laxalt said he'd had "a great deal of contact" with Dorfman and the Teamsters executive committee whose loans helped build some of Nevada's casinos.

"Several months ago I had the members of the (Teamsters) board at the governor's mansion for a briefing of our state gaming heads," wrote Laxalt. "The candidness, the spirit of cooperation which they extended, impressed all of us greatly. I cannot believe that the man who organized this group is the criminal type so often depicted in the national press.

"The more I move along in life the more impressed (I am) by the inaccurate and tragically false images that are created by our national press."

Laxalt acknowledged to Nixon that most presidents "wouldn't touch this case with a 'ten-foot pole.' It's simply too hot a 'political potato'--but the Dick Nixon I know has the guts . . . to make the decision which should be made."

Two days before Christmas 1971, Nixon commuted Hoffa's sentence on the recommendation of Attorney General John Mitchell and the federal parole attorney, following pleas by Hoffa's lawyer, Morris Shenker. Hoffa's file at the Justice Department relating to his sentence commutation contains no letters of recommendations from private citizens such as Laxalt. Hoffa disappeared in July 1975 and has not been heard from since. Dorfman is awaiting trail on charges of conspiring to bribe Sen. Howard W. Cannon (D-Nev.) and has pleaded not guilty.

Earlier this month, Laxalt's offfice verified the authenticity of Laxalt's 1971 letter but said the senator would have no comment.