Sunday, August 25, 2002

Living the high life without getting caught

Friends of ours: Tony Centracchio, John "No Nose" DiFronzo, Al Capone, Sam Carlisi, James Marcello, Michael Spano Sr., James "Jimmy I" Inendino, Anthony Accardo
Friends of mine: Thomas Tucker, William Galioto, John LaGiglio

TV mobster Tony Soprano runs the Bada Bing strip club and a garbage hauling firm.

Real-life mobster Tony Centracchio, who died last year while facing charges he oversaw a video gambling empire, was slightly more diversified. Over the years, Centracchio, who lived in Oak Brook, owned a jewelry shop, a carpet store and an abortion clinic, sources say.

Why the different businesses? To hide the ill-gotten cash.

Successful mobsters such as Centracchio need legitimate ways to explain the good life they're living. The kind of life that includes nice houses, fancy cars, big vacations, private schools for the kids. Centracchio oversaw an illegal video gambling operation that pulled in more than $22 million over two decades, the feds say, and he could hardly just throw all that money into a savings account. The Internal Revenue Service, if not the folks next door, might ask questions.

Legitimate businesses provide a quiet way for mobsters to hide money, make more money (a good restaurant will turn a profit for a devil as readily as for an angel) and, when opportunity calls, blend the legit with the illegit. Centracchio's jewelry store sold legally purchased jewelry as well as the stolen stuff, authorities said.

In all, the Chicago Outfit rakes in an estimated $100 million in pure profit each year, law enforcement sources say, and while that's nowhere near what Al Capone took in--more than $1 billion a year in today's dollars--it's a hefty amount that has to be put somewhere.

John "No Nose" DiFronzo, for instance, put some of his money into a car dealership, authorities said.

As for Capone, he spread his wealth around. The bill for his suites at the Metropole Hotel in the 1920s ran him $1,500 a day, according to one biography. He burnished his public image by feeding thousands of people through soup kitchens. When it came to spending his loot, he was flashy. Which may have been his downfall. When Capone was finally sent to prison, it was not for bootlegging, but income tax evasion.

Chicago's street gangs, as described last April in the first installment of the Chicago Sun-Times Crime Inc. series, follow in Capone's spirit. Flooded with cash from illegal drug sales, street gang leaders have invested in ostentatious suburban homes, private jets and vanity motion pictures about their lives. But the Chicago mob, often called the Outfit, will have little of that. It prefers a lower profile, the better to stay out of jail.

Chicago mobsters buy car dealerships and limousine companies. They start up construction companies, private investigation firms and car washes. They buy strip clubs, dirty bookstores and restaurants. They start trucking companies--a natural for them, given their long ties to the Teamsters union. And, in one of the mob's more extravagant moments, it even bought a golf course in Wisconsin, with dreams of opening a casino. That particular mob dream was behind an insurance scam that on Friday brought down Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese and six others. A jury brought in a verdict of guilty against the seven.

While the mob simply buys its way into many businesses, it strong-arms its way into others. About 10 years ago, for example, the owner of a west suburban pest control company racked up a $6,000 gambling debt. The businessman, hooked on video poker, couldn't pay it back, so he took out a juice loan from a man who worked for Centracchio, former Stone Park chief of detectives Thomas Tucker, court documents show. Tucker, ironically, also was responsible for overseeing the very video poker machines the man blew his money on.

For the juice loan, the businessman had to pay $300 in interest. Not per year or per month. Per week. At one point, the business owner told Tucker he couldn't pay back the money, so Tucker gave him a five-month reprieve--with a price. Tucker and two other men demanded to buy into the man's business for a low price, then eventually bought him out altogether for a pittance. The onetime business owner wound up working for them.

Once a wise mobster owns a business, however, he tries to pretend he doesn't own it, usually by putting it in the name of someone he trusts. That way, if the feds haul him in and convict him of a crime, the business is safe from being seized by the government, or at least safer than if it were in his name.

The late mob boss Sam Carlisi and top mobster James Marcello, who is now in prison, bought real estate through a former Chicago cop, William Galioto, who is Marcello's brother-in-law, to hide their ownership, the feds believe.

Galioto's name came to light most prominently in 1995 when Mayor Daley scotched a low-interest city loan to him and his partners to build a West Side movie studio. Galioto has denied any wrongdoing. But for a really vivid picture of how the mob launders money, one needs to look no further than Loren-Maltese, alleged Cicero mob chief Michael Spano Sr. and a handful of their pals, who were found guilty Friday of running an insurance scam that siphoned more than $12 million out of the town.

Two of the key players were Spano and his business partner, John LaGiglio. They ran a trucking firm and knew zip about insurance. But that didn't stop them from starting up Specialty Risk Consultants, an insurance company that had one big customer, the Town of Cicero.

LaGiglio had dreams of going after the insurance business of other trucking firms, strip clubs and bars owned by his buddies, but the Town of Cicero was the only client necessary, authorities said. The town kept paying and paying, no questions asked.

LaGiglio didn't actually own Specialty Risk Consultants, not officially. The IRS was on his tail for back taxes, and if it became known that he owned a profitable insurance business--bam, here comes the IRS with its hand out. So LaGiglio's parents owned the business, at least on paper, the feds say.

To run the business, LaGiglio hired a guy named Frank Taylor, who knew insurance and, more importantly, was a crook himself. Over the years, Taylor has had a hand in everything from pornography to financial fraud. But Taylor had his own tax problems, making it difficult for him or LaGiglio to be seen getting salaries.

So they played the name game again, the feds say, this time setting up a company called Plaza Partners. The "partners" in Plaza Partners were the wives of LaGiglio and Taylor.

Every week, giving some reason, Specialty Risk Consultants would shift cash to Plaza Partners, prosecutors say. Then the wives would collect their weekly paychecks from Plaza Partners and hand the money right back to their husbands, the feds say.

Plaza Partners wasn't the only shell company set up to hide the money being stolen from Cicero. There was also Specialty Leasing Inc. It was a car leasing company.

Customers--some of the defendants and their families and friends--set their own payments, with Cadillacs being the favorite vehicle. And there was Specialty Financing, a loan company.

Here's how it worked, according to the feds:

No collateral?

No problem!

You don't want to pay all the loan back? No problem!

Spano's son-in-law got a $40,000 loan.

Didn't pay all of it back.

The brother of top mobster Marcello, Michael, got a $16,000 loan for a boat.

Didn't pay all of it back.

In all, nearly $2 million of Cicero's money went to Specialty Finance, IRS investigators estimate. And millions of dollars more were funneled through various other shell companies, making it possible for Spano to buy a Wisconsin vacation home, for the LaGiglios to buy an Indiana horse farm, and for that purchase of the Wisconsin golf course, the feds allege.

Attorneys for the alleged key players have disputed the prosecutors' version.

Loren-Maltese didn't know about any theft from the town, her attorney says. And where was the bribe to her to allow such thievery?

Other defense lawyers have emphasized that key government witnesses have cut deals for reduced sentences or lied under oath before.

One of the oddest cases of mob money laundering involved a friend of Spano's, loan shark James Inendino. Inendino goes by the nickname "Jimmy I," which stands for his last name, and for ice pick, which he reportedly once used on a man's eye.

In the early 1990s, according to court documents, Inendino helped launder millions of dollars in cash belonging to the late Outfit boss Anthony Accardo.

Why so much cash? Accardo, who was once Al Capone's bodyguard, had stashed it in his River Forest house, apparently for decades. Some of the money was so old--dating back to the Capone era--that the mobsters apparently feared it might no longer be accepted as legal currency.

Thanks to Steve Warmbir

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