By James Hill, Tribune Staff Writer

Tribune staff writer John O'Brien contributed to this report. 

Friday, December 18, 1998


An "elaborate fraud" involving an unauthorized spring trip to Las Vegas by reputed mobster James DiForti--currently free on $500,000 bond while facing murder charges--has deepened legal problems for DiForti and his lawyer. Cook County Criminal Court Judge Stuart E. Palmer admonished DiForti and his attorney, Alex Salerno, Thursday after granting a prosecutor's motion to increase DiForti's bond because of the unauthorized trip. Palmer also said he will file a complaint against Salerno with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission for allegedly trying to cover up the incident. That action could lead to disbarment for Salerno, who had no comment Thursday.

Palmer ordered DiForti taken into custody and increased his bond to $2.5 million. The judge then recused himself from the case because he planned to file the complaint against Salerno. DiForti is to appear before Presiding Judge Thomas R. Fitzgerald on Friday to be assigned to a new judge. Palmer also noted: "If (DiForti) ever makes the bond, he will be transferred to post-trial services and be placed on home confinement."

The incident stems from a trip to Las Vegas that DiForti took from June 15 through June 18. Before going to Las Vegas, Salerno had requested that his client's bond be expanded so he could travel to Indiana, Kentucky and Florida to conduct matters involving his racehorse business. DiForti became involved in the horse business after he had been removed from his job as secretary/treasurer of Laborers International Union of North America Local 5 in Chicago Heights last year amid allegations of mob influence in the union.

After the Las Vegas trip was brought to the attention of the court by prosecutors, who would not say how they knew of DiForti's whereabouts, Palmer asked for an explanation. What he got was lies, the judge said Thursday. "The fact is that I was deceived," Palmer said. "It's really not the travel to Nevada that is all that egregious. It's what happened afterward."

In an effort to explain the Las Vegas trip, on July 6, Palmer was presented a letter by DiForti and Salerno allegedly signed by a Las Vegas car dealer and racehorse owner saying that he had met with DiForti and planned to hire the 53-year old Westchester resident to help with the purchase of racehorses, according to Assistant State's Atty. Bill Dorner. Salerno also had told the court he had personally spoken to the Las Vegas businessman and vouched for DiForti and the letter, according to court transcripts.

That same Las Vegas businessman would later testify in Cook County Court that he never wrote the letter, never spoke with Salerno and didn't even know DiForti, according to transcripts. In addition, a phone number for the Las Vegas businessman that DiForti and Salerno gave the court turned out to be the beeper number of an Illinois fugitive, Dorner said. The fugitive worked as a car salesman in Las Vegas with the businessman, who was unaware of his criminal background, Dorner added. The fugitive also was a co-conspirator of a former client of Salerno. "But the bottom line is it all stems from Mr. DiForti," Palmer said. DiForti had given all the false information to Salerno, who then passed it along to the court.

DiForti currently is awaiting trial in connection with a 10 year-old murder case. He is alleged to have killed William Benham, the owner of B&S Pallet Co., in February 1988, after Benham refused to repay a $100,000 juice loan. Benham also had threatened to tell federal agents about DiForti's alleged mob ties and loan-sharking activities, Dorner said. The slaying was unsolved until the FBI received a tip while conducting an unrelated investigation in 1995. DNA testing led to DiForti's arrest in July 1997.


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