Friday, December 30, 2005

Crime Commission Officially Gains New Boss

Former FBI agent James Wagner ws officially introduced on December 14th as the new boss at the Chicago Crime Commission, a mixed blessing for the good citizens of our city and state.

On the plus side, it should prove an exciting shot in the arm for the Crime Commission, the venerable civic organization that was born in the lawlessness of Chicago circa 1919 and thrived on a crimebusting image earned during the heyday of Chicago hoodlums, but has seemed to struggle with its sense of purpose in recent decades.

In Wagner, the Crime Commission gets a real law-enforcement veteran with not only historical perspective but up-to-date knowledge of organized crime, both the players and their activities -- the mission that should remain at the top of the commission's reasons to exist.

Wagner, though, gained some of his knowledge during the past six years as the top investigator for the Illinois Gaming Board, which is where the downside to the public factors into the equation. The Gaming Board, which rides herd on Illinois' riverboat gambling industry, was already woefully short of investigators, whose not-so-simple task is to keep organized crime from infiltrating the casinos. Losing Wagner could be another serious blow.

Because of state budget cuts and hiring freezes under Gov. Blagojevich, the Gaming Board has gone from 18 investigators when Wagner started there to just eight at present. "That's just not enough to do the job over there," Wagner told me Tuesday, admitting that frustration with the situation at the Gaming Board was a major factor in his decision to leave after he was recruited for the Crime Commission opening.

There are 10,000 casino employees in Illinois, each of whom has to undergo a background check by the investigative staff before they can be licensed. Owners and managers are supposed to get more extensive background investigations. The Gaming Board also must investigate the companies that supply gaming equipment to the casinos. "I really was not comfortable we had enough people to do a satisfactory job. We did the best we could, but I would strongly recommend that the state increase the manpower there," said Wagner with the understatement one would expect from a career FBI agent.

Does that mean the door has already been left open for organized crime to get a foothold in Illinois? "I wouldn't go that far," Wagner said. "My concern is that it has left open the opportunity for infiltration that would be unbeknownst to us because we're not looking in all the places that we should be looking."

It's a warning that Gaming Board officials have been issuing for several years now -- to no avail. State government has many unmet needs at present, but sooner or later, this one is going to catch up to us.

It was my first chance to meet Wagner, a distinguished-looking 62-year-old with a full head of silvery hair who grew up on a farm in downstate Newman and taught high school four years before joining the FBI in 1969.

Wagner had just come up on retirement age when federal prosecutor Sergio Acosta took over as administrator of the Gaming Board and persuaded Wagner, then the coordinator of the bureau's Chicago Organized Crime Section, to join him in March 2000. His tenure included the investigation that so far has helped block Emerald Casino from locating a new riverboat in Rosemont, partially based on organized crime concerns.

Returning to the bright side, Wagner can continue this kind of work from the bully pulpit provided by the Crime Commission, which will benefit from someone who has credibility with the law enforcement community and the news media, although the latter will need to persuade him to loosen up a bit.

To many, the Crime Commission must seem an anachronism, a throwback to the days when organized crime figures operated openly and conspicuously within this city. But the Hired Truck scandal at City Hall, the still unfolding Family Secrets investigation and even the Emerald episode have provided fresh evidence that organized crime is still active in our city, having burrowed deeply into our institutions.

Wagner offers a sobering perspective. "Organized crime is alive and well in Chicago and, unfortunately, probably always will be," he said. "There is a concerted effort on the part of some, I don't know if you'd call them apologists, but people often like to believe we put them out of business by putting them in jail, and that doesn't eradicate anything. They're still there, and they're still working."

"They are strong. They have done a great job of insulating themselves through investments and what we would consider to be legitimate businesses and getting out of the limelight and going below into the shadows again." Wagner should find plenty to keep him busy. Let's make sure the Gaming Board is empowered to move forcefully to complete the work he left behind.

Thanks to Mark Brown

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