Friday, February 3, 2006

Joey The Clown

[Here’s another article I wrote recently for The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest national Catholic newspaper published in St. Paul.]

CHICAGO—Beginning in 1915 when one Alphonse Capone moved here from New York, mob crime took on a distinctively ethnic character. Known locally as The Outfit, it attracted white men with sleek, black pompadours, expensive suits, pointy imported shoes and surnames ending in vowels. Most were either lapsed or irregularly practicing congregants of the Catholic Church.

One exception was Earl (Hymie) Weiss, a Jew, the boss of the North Side Outfit but he also left his mark on the Church. Literally. He was strolling down a sidewalk across from Holy Name Cathedral on Oct. 11, 1926 when a fusillade of bullets from a nearby rooming house cut him down, enabling him to “take a shortcut to God” in the words of one romantic. But Hymie’s demise was well noted and long remembered because a few bullets went askew, chipping the Cathedral cornerstone. Thus its inscription changed from a longer version to the condensed and meaningless “…every knee should…heaven and earth.”

The altered cornerstone was a regular tourist stop for years with buses halting and allowing visitors to peer at the stone until the archdiocese finally had enough and obliterated the whole thing. Memories of the Outfit have been fading until last week. That when the feds nabbed spry, 77-year-old Joey (The Clown) Lombardo, on the lam and the subject of an international manhunt since April, 2005 after the authorities charged him and others with 18 or so unsolved murders.

Lombardo’s gentler side came home to me a few years ago when a woman whose restaurant I patronize told me that after she bought the place she solicited bids to renew the booths. Those who answered were short of skill. The hands-down winner was a grandfatherly type who expertly re-fitted them with beautiful leather—and his fee was reasonable, too. She mourned that he may be the last surviving leather re-fitter in the city. She grew pensive when she learned that the re-fitter, Lombardo, is also the last of the old-time Chicago hit-men. The feds determined that he was indeed the city’s last surviving serial assassin from a lineage that went back to Dion O’Bannion. Lombardo got his nickname The Clown because he was a decidedly manic, enthusiastically good-natured comic in his trade. While the FBI searched for him, the newspapers would receive every so often letters postmarked from far away in which Lombardo would protest he was innocent. The letters usually had a clever and irreverent comment or two, a trademark for the man they called The Clown. The letters spurred a media binge to find him. The newspapers ran old pictures of him grinning which led one newspaper to run a photo of an old guy riding a bicycle which it proclaimed was Lombardo—but it was not. Rather than sue the paper, that old guy seemed to be flattered.

While the search went on, Lombardo stories were re-told. For one thing, he was a kind of progressive Outfit kingpin. While Capone and others liked to live high on the hog, Lombardo had an affinity for working people and unions. Particularly the Teamsters. In 1977 he was convicted of attempting to bribe Nevada Senator Howard Cannon to delay passage of a trucking deregulation bill long sought by the Teamsters. When the senatorial bribery business turned sour, he turned to leather upholstery. Then he disappeared but after he was picked up in suburban Elmwood Park the other day, it was evident that business—serial murder, bribery and leather booth refinishing—was not good.

When he appeared in court last week he looked like Saddam Hussein with a beard that would require a weed-whacker for us to see his face. When the judge inquired solicitously about his health and whether he had kept up his doctor’s appointments to treat hardening of the arteries, Lombardo said, “I was, ah, what do they call it—unavailable.” This drollery was worth an appearance on Letterman.

But while Lombardo’s capture captivated the news, a more significant indictment may well have led to fever chills in city hall. Up to now, indictments and convictions on graft have been devoted to city workers— not elected officials. It led to speculation that U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald might veer away from indicting elected officials because, presumably, Mayor Richard M. Daley is President Bush’s favorite big city mayor. But now Fitzgerald has started indicting elected Democratic officials—starting with the elected Democratic city clerk, James Laski.

Laski, a popular politician, had ambitions to become mayor. He is a former alderman, possessed of a popular Polish name, comes from the South Side where the cream of Democratic hierarchy have originated. As such Laski has been receiving generally good media attention—until now at any rate. He has not been known as a devotee of Mayor Daley, has taken issue with him in the past over tax increases and is regarded as a latter day exponent of bungalow belt morality, even reputed to be a reformer. Yet as it appears now, being elected and a reformer didn’t help Laski.

That’s because he could not resist the honey pot that has lured so many city workers to their political doom: the Hired Truck scandal where officials take bribes in order to schedule private trucking firms to receive lush city contracts, not only getting their owners high paid work but enabling some not to work at all and still get paid. Laski was so greedy say the feds that he became a regular broker for the hired trucks, getting them contracts and taking his own fees in cash. Indeed, much business was conducted on the phone where he communicated with the bribers by code. The feds taped the calls and one minute’s eavesdrop convinced them Laski was dealing in code—because the words he used didn’t sound like Laski.

In order to signal that a payoff was expected, Laski would say on the phone, “Go Cubs!” But as any respectable fed would know, Laski was a South Sider and thus a Chicago White Sox fan. Rooting for the Cubs by a South Side politician led the FBI to conclude rightly that something was funny. So they kept listening.

A cautionary thing Laski did was pat down people who came into his office to see if they were carrying wires for the feds. That in itself led the FBI to wonder what Laski intended to say that could be damaging. But the final touch was that Laski’s pat-downs weren’t thorough. One FBI mole was patted down and Laski’s pudgy hands passed by the wire and the microphone.

No sooner was Laski indicted than it was discovered that he had four city policemen who were detailed to him as bodyguards. Why a city clerk needs police bodyguards has always defied reason, at least for me. (Indeed, why the Illinois secretary of state has bodyguards also is a mystery). Laski’s guard story prompted widespread speculation. And it turned out Laski isn’t the only one to have police protection. That the mayor has cops to protect him no one will quarrel about—since two mayors in city history were assassinated. But the city treasurer has bodyguards as does an ex-mayor of fifteen years ago! Not only that but the bodyguards were also serving the city’s richest alderman, Edward Burke, chairman of the council’s Finance committee, his snow white hair setting off his ruddy face as he surveys his own greatness, attired in expensive suits, a green tie and ever-present green handkerchief in his breast pocket.

. Burke and his wife Anne (who served as the oracular acting chair on the Church’s National Review Board as set up by the bishops) are millionaires many times over. He is raking in the dough as the city’s foremost zoning lawyer and his wife is an Appellate Justice in the state court system. If Chicago has a royalty apart from the Daleys, it’s the Burkes who together rank as prince and princess of city Democratic politics and in the establishmentarian Catholic church and society. Moreover, Burke also heads the Cook county Democratic party’s judge selection committee. He picks those to run for election, making sure, of course, that they pony up sufficient monies for the Cook county Democratic party’s campaigns. Let us say it’s the last vestige of the old-line patronage system that constitutes the bedrock of the Democratic party here and which enables Illinois to be a blue state, fore-square pro-abort and hotly anti-Bush.

Now, why, oh why, does Eddie Burke have police body-guards? If his life were in danger, he could easily pay for private eyes. But there is a certain status to being escorted to meetings and social gatherings fore and aft by uniformed police. It provides the aura of prominence. Jim Laski will have to do without police guards while he stands trial. But there’s a consolation. If convicted he will once again be surrounded by guards, to keep him in, not to serve his needs. This thought may well have also occurred to Richard M. Daley as Patrick Fitzgerald continues slowly and deliberately to study corruption in Chicago. When he goes to jail, Joey the Clown will be the last chapter in the old era of Capone-style corruption. An entirely new chapter—typified by Jim Laski—an impeccable one that merges wealth and Democratic political prestige is about to begin.

1 comment:

  1. While Chicago certainly had Jewish gangsters, Earl (Hymie) Weiss wasn't one of them. Hymie not only was Catholic, he was quite devout (in that strange way people in his dangerous line of work so often are).

    His Polish immigrant parents changed the family name from Wajciechowski to Weiss, and because that sounded Jewish some Chicago wiseacres gave him the ironic nickname of "Hymie."

    For pictures of his very catholic mausoleum and prayer book go to