Prohibition was the law of the land when Al Capone took over Cicero in 1924, muscling his way in with gun-toting hoodlums and this suburb west of Chicago still hasn’t shaken its reputation for mob influence and corruption.
“The organized crime mystique — that’s the reason for our image,” says town spokesman Ray Hanania, insisting town president Larry Dominick has “taken politics out of town government” since taking office in 2005. The story of Cicero and the mob, he said, is “a great story and it’s easy to write, but it’s unfair.”
Critics, though, say corruption still hangs thick in the air.
About a week ago, former town president Betty Loren-Maltese returned after six-and-a-half years in prison for fleecing taxpayers of more than US$12 million in a mob-related insurance scam.
Loren-Maltese was boosted into politics by her husband, former Cicero town assessor Frank “Baldy” Maltese, who was indicted on corruption charges in the 1990s. Maltese pleaded guilty to conspiracy in 1993 but died of cancer before going to prison.
No sooner had Loren-Maltese arrived on Monday to start a four-month term in a halfway house, than news surfaced that she and her mother were receiving health insurance benefits from the very town fund that Loren-Maltese was convicted of looting.
Hanania said Loren-Maltese received the benefits under a law she “rammed through” while still in office that provides coverage to all Cicero elected officials for life, and her mother got insurance for serving on the police and fire commission.
By Tuesday, officials in the town of about 85,000 decided her mother wasn’t entitled to the coverage because she never held elective office, and terminated it.
But that wasn’t the only problem, critics say. Dominick, an ex-cop, has found jobs for a number of his relatives on the town payroll.
“I think they haven’t really changed since the Al Capone era in their approach to government and politics and civic decency,” says Andy Shaw, head of Chicago’s Better Government Association.”
Not that some things haven’t changed.
Prostitutes no longer saunter outside the mob-connected strip joints that flourished along Cicero Avenue in the 1950s and 1960s. Gone are the prize fighters who once slugged it out in an arena in a cloud of colored smoke.
“The place was crawling with vice and gambling,” said John Binder, author of a history of the city’s organized crime family. “It was the same story in some other little suburbs where the mob could get its hooks in, but Cicero was sort of the crown jewel, maybe because of its location close to Chicago and because Capone pushed his way in there.”
Now it all seems comparatively tame. Almost.
In 2003, a pipe bomb erupted in Berwyn, a neighboring suburb. The blast blew away the front of a firm that distributed video poker machines. Prosecutors said it was organized crime’s way of delivering the message that horning in on its monopoly on video poker machines was dangerous.
In 2008, a local jewelry store owner and an 86-year-old former manager of a Cicero strip joint, were indicted on charges of blowing up the video poker company.
Last year, the charges against the pair became part of a larger, racketeering indictment that added five other defendants.