CICERO, Ill. - Chicago's dead regularly rise from their graves every election year to vote. But it took one of the city's suburbs to truly elevate the bar for posthumous political chicanery: A town official here signed - several months after his death - a deal that conveniently yielded millions of dollars for his successors and their mob patrons.
That, at least, is the picture federal prosecutors have drawn of life - and death - in Cicero, the town that has never quite emerged from the legacy of its most infamous resident, the gangster Al Capone, who in escaping a crackdown in Chicago in the 1920s found a haven here by buying up the local pols and cops.
Somewhere, Capone must be shaking his head: What would have been business as usual in his Cicero has landed a group of current and former town officials and several alleged mob figures in the middle of a huge political corruption trial. The group is accused of skimming about $10 million from town coffers and buying themselves Cadillacs, a vacation home, a golf course and other perks.
At the center of the trial is Cicero's colorful town president - the office is comparable to a city's mayor - Betty Loren-Maltese. With her bouffant, false eyelashes and juicy biography - she is a carhop turned mob wife turned town boss and now federal indictee - she has surely earned a place in the Chicago area's long tradition of flamboyant if sometimes suspect politicos.
"It's real-life Sopranos, is what it is," grumbles David Boyle, a lawyer in Cicero and an avowed political enemy of Loren-Maltese.
Or, rather, Betty, as she is called by friend and foe alike, as well as the headline writers at the tabloid Chicago Sun-Times: "Betty can call Cicero home" (when she beat an election-year residency challenge claiming that she actually lives in Las Vegas), and "Betty's back to business" (when she presided over her first town meeting after her indictment).
Usually chatty and blunt-spoken, Loren-Maltese is not saying much on the record these days, referring questions to her attorney - adding, however, that his firm is also representing the figure involved in another current high-profile case in Chicago, that of R. Kelly, the R&B musician facing child pornography charges for allegedly being filmed having sex with an underage girl.
"There's a little theatrics in there, too," she said one day last week, rolling her eyes toward the courtroom in federal District Court in downtown Chicago as she left after another day on trial.
Indeed, the cast of characters and the plot of the trial, which is entering its fourth week, plays out like a Hollywood script. It goes like this, according to federal indictments, handed down last June after five years of investigation:
Cicero mob figures created a company, Specialty Risk Consultants, in 1992 to take over the town's health and liability insurance programs. They used the signature stamp of town president Henry Klosak to validate the transaction, several months after his death that year. In addition to paying out legitimate insurance claims, the mobsters and their associates in town hall used the company as a way of siphoning off millions of dollars, some of which was spent buying a golf course in Wisconsin that the mob hoped to turn into a lucrative casino.
Helping them out in town hall, according to the indictment, was Loren-Maltese, who had been Klosak's aide. She was appointed to replace him after his death, thanks to a plan orchestrated behind the scenes by her husband, Frank Maltese, a power broker in town and an alleged mob bookie. (Maltese, who was Cicero's town assessor, pleaded guilty in 1992 to a gambling conspiracy charge and died of cancer the next year before he could serve a nine-month prison term.)
Other town hall figures indicted with Loren-Maltese, who has been elected on her own three times, are a former police chief, Emil Schullo, and a retired town treasurer, Joseph DeChicio.
Much of this past week in the courtroom was spent on the cross-examination of one of the government's star witnesses, Frank Taylor, who was the general manager of Specialty Risk. Taylor had been indicted along with the other defendants but cut a deal in which he pleaded guilty and agreed to testify for the government in exchange for a lesser sentence.
Taylor testified that town officials and mob figures regularly met for walleye fish fries - a Midwestern tradition - at a restaurant in neighboring Berwyn. He told of delivering wads of cash there to one official and of using town funds to buy Cadillacs for other defendants in the insurance scam.
It was also at one of those fish fries, Taylor said, that he heard then-Police Chief Schullo joke that he had been able to "raise the dead" and get the late Henry Klosak's signature to transfer the town's insurance to Specialty Risk.
`We all love her'
Back in Cicero, Loren-Maltese has both staunch defenders and detractors.