White House counselor Edwin Meese III met personally with FBI Director William H. Webster on Dec. 5, 1980, to request information on any possible allegations of links between Raymond J. Donovan and organized crime figures. The meeting was 11 days before President-elect Reagan announced his intention to nominate Donovan to be secretary of labor.
Meese, who at that time was chief of Reagan's transition office, asked Webster to advise him before the FBI went into a full background investigation of Donovan whether "checks reveal any allegations relating to organized crime."
Last month, special prosecutor Leon Silverman, who was named Dec. 29, 1981, to look into allegations connecting Donovan to organized crime figures, said he had found "insufficient credible evidence" to warrant prosecution on a series of allegations which had arisen since Donovan was nominated.
The information that, before the nomination, the White House was worried about possible organized crime problems with Donovan is contained in a chronology of the Donovan confirmation process compiled by the White House and sent last week to certain members of the House and Senate.
According to the chronology, after the preliminary check failed to turn up any information linking Donovan to organized crime, Reagan announced officially on Dec. 16, 1980, that he planned to nominate Donovan.
But within two weeks after the FBI began its full background investigation on Dec. 30, the bureau began to uncover allegations, some already in FBI files, that Donovan's Schiavone Construction Co. of Secaucus, N.J., was "mobbed up" and that Donovan had attended the 1979 Superbowl with William P. Masselli, who has been described by the FBI as "an alleged, self-admitted soldier" in the Genovese crime family.
Asked why he asked for the check, Meese said yesterday through his deputy, James Jenkins, "If the FBI found any substantial indication of organized crime connections, we would want a chance to consider withdrawing the name prior to the FBI commencing a full-field investigation with its attendant public aspects."
Asked why Meese should have been concerned at that point about ties between Donovan and organized crime, Jenkins said, "He can't remember why it came up. He thought maybe he read it in the paper."
But Jenkins said that a staff search yesterday of newspapers from that time period found no references to any allegations against Donovan. "He's racked his brain, and he can't remember," Jenkins said. "It's been 18 months. If he had to guess, he'd say it was something he read in the paper."
A search of The Washington Post files produced only a reference on Dec. 3 that Donovan was being considered for the job, but no reference to any crime problem.
According to the White House chronology, which has been obtained by The Washington Post, White House counsel Fred F. Fielding, who was then serving as conflicts counsel for the transition office, had already placed by telephone a routine request with the FBI either Nov. 30 or Dec. 1, 1980, to do an "indices check" on Donovan, a routine check of the central files. A day later he asked the FBI do a standard "name check" on Donovan.
Fielding's job at that point included handling the requests for background checks that the FBI was conducting on all the Reagan appointees.
Then, on Dec. 5, Meese met personally with Webster to ask to be informed of any allegations of organized crime connections before the full background investigation was begun.
Fielding said yesterday that to the best of his recollection, he was not informed at the time of Meese's meeting with Webster or the reason for it.
The chronology indicates that on Dec. 12, 1980, E. Pendleton James, head of personnel for the transition office, called Webster on behalf of Meese to ask about Donovan and was advised that the FBI's initial check had produced no information. Webster later confirmed this information directly with Meese, but no date was provided.
The incoming Reagan White House was informed Jan. 12, 1981, the first day of Donovan's confirmation hearings before the Senate Labor Committee, that Donovan had "close personal and business ties with known La Cosa Nostra figures."
The FBI report containing that information was hand-delivered to White House counsel Fielding that day and eventually supplied to the Senate committee.
But committee did not learn of the allegations until well after the nomination was approved.
In addition to allegations that Schiavone had paid off to buy labor peace, Donovan's name had turned up on a 1979 wiretap at Masselli's Bronx warehouse.
Masselli was also the head of a trucking company that grew into a multimillion dollar business as a subcontractor for Donovan's company on New York City subway contracts.
Roger Young, a spokesman for the FBI, said yesterday that the wiretap reference to Donovan did not show up on the initial investigation because at that time the FBI policy in that type of nomination check was to go through only the indices in the headquarters office. As a result of the problem with Donovan, Young said policy now is to check all 59 FBI field offices.
He said he does not know why Meese went to Webster so early to ask about possible organized crime problems.
"The only thing I can think of is that it was because Donovan was coming out of New Jersey, the Italian construction business. I don't necessarily agree with that sort of thing, but it could be an explanation."