Betty Loren-Maltese’s dance with the mob
June 17, 2001
BY BRYAN SMITH STAFF REPORTER
The harsh lights that lit the hot, cramped courtroom fell unkindly on the woman with the oversize glasses.
Her face stripped of its usual makeup, she looked pale. Her eyes were tired and anxious. She stood holding her elbows in a black short-sleeved shirt and jeans, glaring over her shoulder at reporters and spectators.
In her town, she would have been leading the proceedings, defiant and certain, blasting those who would accuse her and perhaps taking note for retribution.
But in this place, she was not in charge. She was not in her town, but leaning against a polished courtroom pew in downtown Chicago, a place she doesn’t like, adrift in a sea of blue and gray suits.
When they called her name she almost whispered it. When they read the charges against her, multiple counts of conspiracy and racketeering, she looked bewildered.
In the federal courtroom, Betty Loren-Maltese, Cicero president, the Queen, the iron-fisted ruler, looked something that seemed almost unfathomable. She looked lost.
Except for one thing.
Perhaps coincidental, but telling nonetheless: Her co-defendants sat.
Loren-Maltese, positioned apart from the rest, stood.
* * *
Friday, the feds unveiled the charges. Saying “the Cicero candy store is closed,” they alleged that Loren-Maltese and nine others stole $10 million in taxpayer money.
The indictments allege that Loren-Maltese jacked up town employees’ payroll deductions to raise $33 million that she sent to an insurance company controlled by her late husband’s friend, Michael Spano Sr.
Only $18 million went to legitimate insurance purposes. The rest enriched Loren-Maltese and her associates, the indictment charges, with much of it going to a Wisconsin golf course that the mob had hoped to turn into a casino.
In a press release, Cicero town officials said they “are confident that the Town president will be exonerated.”
An exhausted Loren-Maltese, contrary to the style that has made her famous, left without a word.
* * *
She came on the scene like some central casting mob wife, a chain-smoking, tough-talking dark-haired fury vaulted to the top of Cicero’s rough-and-tumble political heap by her late husband, Frank Maltese.
He was a political powerhouse there who had pleaded guilty to mob ties shortly before his death, but in a place where for decades the phrase “organized crime” brought barely a batted eyelash, he had enough juice to put her in charge.
Cicero is nothing if not colorful, a place where bigger-than-life personality has trumped the reality of its hard-working citizenry. And Loren-Maltese did nothing to detract from or discourage the legend.
In her now trademark bouffant, her Tammy Faye eyelashes and Liz Taylor makeup, she became a figure who inspired chuckles from some and fierce loyalty from others.
But in a town that Al Capone made famous, Loren-Maltese spoke of creating a new image–perhaps getting a fake coffin and burying the legend of the famous mobster or of laying claim to something classy–like being the real birthplace of Ernest Hemingway.
She spoke of taking on gangs and did, creating a controversial “gang-free town” ordinance, proposing that gang-bangers be forced to wear pink aprons while performing their community service duties.
Supporters praised her take-charge, can-do attitude, which they say brought clean streets and reduced violence and order to messy finances. She crushed opponents in two elections, garnering nearly two-thirds of the vote.
But from the beginning, rumors of the past whispered like the ghosts she’d vowed to exorcise.
Dirty tricks and thrown bricks marred election campaigns, including false accusations against opponent Joseph Moreno that he was a wife beater and adulterer. The feds poked around alleged voting irregularities. Contracts were questioned, including huge sums paid to former Chicago alderman Ed Vrdolyak, a close friend of Loren-Maltese and her late husband. Investigators looked at deals by Loren-Maltese to buy and rehab homes, specifically checking whether she improperly used town employees as her handymen.
There was talk of patronage powerplays and vendettas against her enemies and political rivals. Suits and countersuits were filed, alleging unfair, illegal tactics, all denied by Loren-Maltese.
But the questions continued.
What was the town president of a relatively small suburb doing with a nearly $1 million war chest?
Cops came and went–police chief Emil Schullo, for instance–first gaining favor, then being banished when they crossed her.
In 1998, Loren-Maltese announced the hiring of a “reform” police chief, David Niebur. She praised him in a newsletter, then axed him after he gave records of one of his investigations to state and federal investigators. A jury awarded him nearly $1 million for being unfairly fired.
And in the current indictments, the phrase “organized crime” surfaced, once again opening the “mob-town” wound.
Always at the center, Loren-Maltese has stood–unrepentant, defiant, insisting the town she runs should not be in the shadow of its shady past, that she will be cleared.
* * *
Because her personality does overwhelm, it is easy to paint Loren-Maltese in simple, bright tones.
But where her speech and manner sometimes lack subtlety, her personality is complex. Even one of her archenemies, former town spokesman and Chicago Sun-Times reporter Ray Hanania, sees shades of gray.
Loren-Maltese has her tenderness, he says. “If there was a wounded dog in the road, she would be the first to help it. . . . It was like this Jekyll and Hyde sort of thing–one minute she’d be yelling at a staffer, the next minute she’s helping a three-legged dog.” She has an adopted daughter, she likes to fish, she likes to escape to a cabin.
But in interviews, Loren-Maltese has acknowledged her temper. “I let it build up because I won’t want to hurt someone’s feelings,” she told the Sun-Times in April 1997. “I feel sorry for that person that’s there when it goes.” As for Cicero, she said, “people either love me or hate. There doesn’t seem to be any in-between.”
So is she tough or ruthless? Quirky or wacky? Aggressive or pushy?
They are questions few might have asked if she’d continued on her early path. Born in Baton Rouge, La., the daughter of a janitor, she was, as she has said, a high-school dropout who was a “a hot-dog lady and a car-hop” who waited tables and ran a small newspaper. She was married at 18 and divorced five years later.
Her life turned around, she says, when she met Frank Maltese, 19 years her senior. The pair climbed the political ladder in Cicero together. He eventually became town assessor. Loren-Maltese became then-President Henry Klosak’s top aide.
When Klosak died suddenly of pneumonia, Loren-Maltese’s husband had her installed as town president, shortly before he pleaded guilty to mob bookmaking and died.
For all the controversy, Loren-Maltese has survived–and thrived– whether through her iron-fisted rule, the purging of her enemies or her willingness to change.
Where she once shunned the media, she now plays the press. Cicero has transformed from a white-flight town into a mostly Hispanic suburb, she has filled positions with Hispanic leaders and reached out to the Hispanic community. When her fellows have sat, she has stood.
* * *
On Friday, Loren-Maltese emerged from her hearing as bewildered and silent as she had been in the courtroom. Cameramen and reporters crushed in around her. Her attorney Terence Gillespie shielded her. She was disgusted, he said, that she had been put through an arrest and dragged up to a hot courtroom like a common criminal.
Loren-Maltese was silent. She didn’t say it, but she looked like she would rather be anywhere but there. Back where she had some control. She looked as if she wanted to be home.
Contributing: Abdon Pallasch
BY DAN ROZEK STAFF REPORTER
Federal corruption charges could land Cicero Town President Betty Loren-Maltese in prison but likely won’t sweep her out of office–at least not right away.
That assessment, though, didn’t stop her most recent political challenger from calling for Loren-Maltese to step down immediately.
“How can you let someone who stole millions from you stay in your house?” said Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, a Democrat who was easily defeated in April by Loren-Maltese.
The federal charges could be the first step in loosening the tight political grip Loren-Maltese has held in Cicero since she was first elected in 1993.
“She will see a significant erosion of support,” predicted Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman and now a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Every candidate who runs against one of her candidates will portray it as an evil, corrupt machine that stole $10 million.”
Loren-Maltese, though, isn’t legally required to resign her office unless she is convicted of the charges. Until then, it benefits her to hold onto her post–if for no other reason than that she can use political campaign funds to help pay what are likely to be staggeringly high legal bills.
“There’s no benefit to resigning. There’s no point in that,” said Simpson, author of a history on scandals in the Chicago City Council called Rogues, Rebels and Rubberstamps.
During his tenure in the Chicago City Council, Simpson recalled, 26 of his colleagues were sent to prison or died facing indictments–and none resigned until convicted.
“The trial doesn’t happen in two minutes,” Simpson said. “Short-term, her position will be the same.”
If Loren-Maltese–whose current term expires in 2005–is convicted or steps down, town trustees will elect a successor to serve as interim president. That person would serve until a special election could be held to choose a president to serve out the remainder of Loren-Maltese’s term.
Two trustees aligned with Loren-Maltese are up for election in 2003, and Moreno said he plans to back opponents to challenge those officials.
The indictments, he predicted, will prompt Cicero voters to show they want a fresh start–without Loren-Maltese.
BY KATE N. GROSSMAN STAFF REPORTER
A former Cicero police superintendent says the bloodletting in his old town has only begun.
“There was a looting of the town’s dollars almost very day. . . . I really don’t think this is the end of this,” former superintendent David Niebur said Friday from his home in Missouri.
Niebur says he expects other indictments out of a town government where “a good majority” of the employees “had their own money-making schemes.”
Last month a jury found that Niebur and another officer were unjustly fired by the administration of Betty Loren-Maltese in 1998. The jury awarded him $911,000.
Niebur argued he was dumped for working with the FBI to combat corruption in the western suburb. Town officials denied the charges.