Chicago Tribune


By John O'Brien and PeterKendall,
Tribune Staff Writers.

Published: Friday, August 8, 1997

The snitch took the witness stand and said that he no longer uses his given name, Charles Francis Bills. His new name, which he didn't dare utter, came from the federal government's witness security program after he squealed about life as a chop-shop operator.

In a recent day of sworn testimony about mob control of the Laborers' International Union of North America, Bills described the salad days of the 26th Street Crew, which ruled criminal activity in Bridgeport. He reminisced about how Frank "Toots" Caruso, son of reputed mob boss Frank "Skids" Caruso, used to dream of becoming a boss himself.

He said he remembered watching Toots' brother, Bruno, "walking around like a little prince" at a boisterous Bridgeport dice game. And the snitch fondly recalled the Caruso brothers' cousin, Leo Caruso, who had a city job, but really spent his time making book on horse races. "He used to sweep the sidewalks on 22nd Street and Wentworth," Bills testified. "If you wanted to play pool or you wanted to meet Leo, you know he had to sweep the street for about 10 or 15 minutes, and then he'd go hide his cart and then he was free for the rest of the day until he had to check it in."

Despite such colorful pasts, the Carusos appear to have done well for themselves. Leo Caruso has hidden his pushcart for good and is now president of a laborers' union local in Chicago. Bruno Caruso, perhaps once a prince, now makes $220,000 as chief of the union's powerful Chicago District Council and president of Local 1001, which represents some city workers. And Frank "Toots" Caruso is the former president of another local and now a trustee and assistant manager of the union's $775 million pension fund.

The question these days is whether these and other powerful officials in the LIUNA--which represents 750,000 workers who sweep, shovel and schlep--are doing the bidding of organized crime. Prodded by the U.S. Department of Justice, the hierarchy of the union began holding hearings in July into mob influence in its ranks, seeking to purge organized crime from the union.

Transcripts of the hearings so far, obtained by the Tribune, show lawyers painstakingly making connections between union officials and known mobsters. They are even drawing lines with colored pens between two charts--one lists mobsters, the other laborers' union officials.

In these hearings, guilt is by association.

The hearings are neither a criminal nor a civil procedure, but are the union's own internal venue to elicit sworn testimony about alleged mob involvement. The proceedings are the result of an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the international, which gave the union three years to clean its own house or face the government stepping in to do it for them. The union's efforts to purge mob influence are being closely monitored by Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and U.S. Atty. Jim Burns, who called the hearings "a positive development in the union's internal reform process." The hearings are in recess until next week, and so far have been dominated by the international's witnesses, including turncoat mobsters and retired cops. The district council will be allowed to present witnesses of its own to rebut the mob allegations when the hearings resume.

Sherman Carmell, lead attorney for the district council, branded the hearings little more than an attack from the international, which he accused of relying on the words of convicted felons to attack labor leaders with "proven records of accomplishment." "Where is the evidence in the last five to seven years that anyone is a member or an associate of organized crime?" Carmell said. "There is no evidence of that."

A spokesman for the Caruso family, attorney Edward Genson, is highly critical of such freewheeling testimony, calling it unfair and slanderous. "Basically, what you have here is character assassination, and they (international lawyers) ought to be ashamed for bringing it," Genson said Thursday. "Nobody said Frank Caruso ever did anything but a superlative job with the union. "What has been said about Frank Caruso comes from government informants, living on the dole, who relate stories about things that supposedly took place 15 or 20 years ago. He is not charged with anything. But this (testimony) is allowed and he cannot defend himself."

In recent years, local leadership of the union has often seemed synonymous with people identified as mob members or associates by federal law enforcement officials and congressional committees. From a rough-and-tumble formation in Chicago 94 years ago, LIUNA leadership has witnessed a succession of family members or family friends sharing the president's chair almost as a birthright. As seen by federal investigators and labor historians, the laborers' union has been influenced--if not held captive--by members of organized crime throughout its history.

Acting on its own, for now, the international, which has blamed the Chicago district for fostering mob influence, is trying to show through sworn testimony the connections between the Chicago bosses and syndicate criminals.

The hearings are usually held in a basement banquet room at Chicago's Midland Hotel. But when onetime mob lawyer and renowned turncoat Robert Cooley testified, the hearing was moved to a secured location in Chicago FBI headquarters. Cooley, who "flipped" for federal prosecutors and became key to uncovering corruption in local courtrooms and government, didn't want to blow his current identity because he now lives in hiding.

As lawyers attempt to connect the union and the mob, they also are inadvertently providing a glimpse of mob life, cracking the blinds on barroom meetings and restaurant rendezvous.

Some of the testimony is almost nostalgic, harking back to days when the mob controlled circulation of "girlie" magazines, something they had to try to keep from the vice squad. = Some is as new as describing surveillance stakeouts in 1996. But much is just about daily life in the mob.

One question that is answered, for example, is how mobsters, who always seem to meet in restaurants and bars, get the privacy they need to talk about things they don't want overheard. In his covert testimony on July 21, Cooley said it is all done with body language. "Like with Faces (a Rush Street bar) in particular, we had one corner of the bar," Cooley testified, according to the transcripts. "And that was the fun corner to be because the cutest girls would be there. They all liked to come around and be in the activity. "If a stranger would come over and even stand around, it was a situation where you had to see to understand, they would make the person feel very uncomfortable. It would get very quiet. Everybody would stare at the person until the person would walk away and leave us, and that was our corner."

Cooley also talked about hanging out at the Redwood Inn, a tavern near Chinatown. Angelo LaPietra, a South Side mob boss who recently was released from prison, would frequently drive by the Redwood, two escort cars in front of his, a "follow car" behind. "He liked to drive through the neighborhood," Cooley testified. "There were different times when you would see different people with him. . . . Sometimes you would see him by himself. It was like he was surveying his fiefdom."

More than once, Cooley testified, Bruno Caruso was in the car with LaPietra as they tooled through Bridgeport and other neighborhoods. This left Cooley with a skewed take on the culture of Bridgeport. "It was a very close-knit community," Cooley said. "A lot of police lived and worked in that community. A lot of mob guys, a lot of organized crime people lived and worked right in that community. . . . "The people seemed to love these people," Cooley testified. "There were a lot of honest, legit people who lived there too, but they seemed to look up to these people."

In his testimony, Bills said that one of his roles in the mob was to look out for "Toots" Caruso. That order came from "Toots' " father, the boss, Bills testified. "(Skids Caruso) will kill everybody if anything happens to Toots or he gets in any kind of trouble, so everybody had to watch that Toots didn't get hurt or he didn't do something, you know?"

And so, Bills testified he got in fights on Toots' behalf. "With Toots, it was usually with a girl, either because he wanted to take somebody's girl away from him or somebody looked at his girl funny." When drinking with "Toots," in Chinatown or on Rush Street, no checks ever arrived at the table.

Testimony also described the last vestiges of the Chicago Police Department's Intelligence Unit, which in decades past had an army of investigators who trailed mobsters around the city and suburbs, noting who ate with whom and wielding long-lensed cameras. Though the staff is diminished, these Chicago spies still play cat-and-mouse with the mob.

John Dineen, former head of the Fraternal Order of Police and a member of the unit, testified that on May 2, 1996, he pulled up at Andrea's restaurant in Forest Park. He testified that he recognized three cars parked outside. One belonged to John Matassa Jr., an official in the Laborers' International Union of North America-- the vanity plate boasted it: LIU 2. Another car belonged to Alphonso Tornabene, whom Dineen called a reputed mob associate but who has never been convicted of mob activity. The third car belonged to James Marcello, the convicted underboss of the late Sam Carlisi, boss of the west suburbs.

Dineen testified he pulled into a parking lot across the street from the restaurant and, from that distance, spied on the men having a conversation in a booth. "They appeared to be engaging in a rather heated discussion," Dineen said, according to the transcripts. "I observed Mr. Matassa making points of whatever he was saying by pointing his finger across the table at Mr. Tornabene; at which time Mr. Tornabene rose up from his seat in the booth and returned conversation by pointing down at Mr. Matassa." Dineen had no idea what they talked about. What is important is that they were talking at all, showing a link between the mob and the union.

Two years ago, John Serpico, the highest ranking Chicago union official, was kicked out of the union's general executive board for having alleged mob ties. Frank "Toots" Caruso quit his post as head of a union local in 1995, shortly before he was to be quizzed by internal union inspectors about his alleged mob ties. Now, he sits on the board of trustees of the union's pension fund, where the inspectors have no investigative authority.

All of this does not sit well with James W. McGough, a disabled Chicago union member who heads a reform group, Laborers for Justice & Democracy. "It is not at all prudent," said McGough, "to have pension fund money invested by people who are mobbed-up."

Copyright 1998, The Tribune Company.

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