Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Despite Recent Success in Fighting "The Outfit", Federal Prosecutors' Mob Focus Decreases

The ranks of the Chicago mob have taken some serious hits in recent years.

So have the ranks of federal prosecutors specializing in Outfit prosecutions.

The number of federal prosecutors dedicated solely to prosecuting Outfit cases has dwindled to an all-time low -- two attorneys -- just after one of the most significant victories ever by the U.S. attorney's office against the mob, the Family Secrets case.

Some prosecutors have been transferred out of the group over the years. Others have retired. And in the biggest blow to the group, its highly regarded chief, Mitchell Mars, died recently after battling cancer.

It's a fact that's causing great worry among some mob busters.

In interviews with the Chicago Sun-Times, six current or former law enforcement officials familiar with the situation said U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald is making a mistake by not beefing up the unit.

The Outfit may be battered, but it is far from dead, they say. It's getting more sophisticated in how it carries out and covers up its crimes.

"The lessons learned from the Family Secrets trial should tell everybody that the Outfit is alive and active in the city," said James Wagner, a retired FBI agent who battled the mob in Chicago and is now the head of the Chicago Crime Commission.

The crime commission will send a letter to Fitzgerald this week asking him to increase the number of attorneys in the group, Wagner said.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago had no comment on the matter.

The organized-crime group of prosecutors doesn't need the dozen or so lawyers it had in the early 1990s, officials say, with some suggesting that five or six attorneys would be enough these days.

"I think it's a strategic mistake," said Ken Holt, a retired FBI agent who worked on several high-profile Outfit cases.

Holt and others point to the fact that the organized-crime group has lost a great deal of institutional memory with the death of Mars and the retirement of prosecutor John Scully last year.

Mars led the prosecution of the Family Secrets case, which resulted in the convictions of Chicago mob boss James "Little Jimmy" Marcello and top mobster Joseph "Joey the Clown" Lombardo, among others.

Scully, another prosecutor on Family Secrets, also worked on the case of former Chicago Police chief of detectives William Hanhardt, who led a mobbed-up jewelry theft ring before being sent to prison.

Law enforcement officials say the group needs veteran attorneys who know the history of and the players in various Outfit street crews, attorneys who can understand, for instance, the significance of an obscure reference from a wiretapped conversation between two mobsters.

The cases are long and complex -- Family Secrets spanned activities covering nearly 40 years -- and they build upon one another, yet another reason to have dedicated attorneys there for the long haul, officials say. And even with some top mobsters behind bars, it's not going away.

"When one guy gets locked up, another guy replaces him," Holt said.

Thanks to Steve Warmbir

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