Far from the pistol toting, Al Capone-busting Chicago lawman of lore, Eliot Ness “was afraid of guns and he barely left the office,” according to a retired IRS agent who spoke out Friday against naming a federal law enforcement building in honor of the Prohibition-era leader of The Untouchables.
Ness was lionized thanks in part to oversimplified Chicago newspaper articles about the fight against Capone that downplayed the essential but less sensational role the Internal Revenue Service played in bringing the bootlegger to justice for tax evasion, said former agents at a City Hall hearing. Those early accounts were later conflated by authors and Hollywood producers into what they said was the legendary-but-inaccurate Ness character portrayed by Robert Stack on TV and Kevin Costner on film.
The testimony came as aldermen took a closer look at a notorious chapter in Chicago’s history with a movement afoot to rename after Ness the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington, D.C. U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk are pushing for the name change, but veteran Southwest Side Ald. Ed Burke, a history buff, says Ness simply doesn’t deserve the honor.
So in a symbolic move to counter another symbolic move, the City Council’s public safety panel recommended Friday that aldermen pass a resolution opposing the renaming of the ATF HQ in D.C.
Aldermen took time Friday to consider the Ness naming conundrum as Chicago faces street violence, a struggling economy and major budget problems. Burke argued the hearing wasn’t pulling them away from problems more deserving of their attention.
“We just spent our lunch hour here, so it’s probably a good idea to skip lunch once in a while,” said Burke, 14th, afterward. “It’s not the most important thing we’re going to talk about, but I think as long as the senators are taking it up, why not have the City Council weigh in on the issue?”
Burke brought in three former IRS agents who said Ness’ Untouchables did disrupt Capone’s booze smuggling operations, but that others did far more to bring down the mobster.
Retired special agent Bob Fuesel said when he joined the IRS in 1958, he met former members of The Untouchables — so named because they and Ness reportedly could not be bribed at a time when many police in Chicago were on Capone’s payroll. “It was during that time I came to understand the real Eliot Ness, and found out that Eliot Ness really didn’t do anything (people said) he did, according to their testimony to me, and that he was afraid of guns and he barely left the office,” Fuesel said.
Fuesel later served as an adviser on the 1987 film “The Untouchables,” where Costner’s Ness delivered hard-boiled lines penned by tough guy Chicago playwright David Mamet.
“It was during that time that I told Kevin Costner, who I met with numerous times, that Eliot Ness really didn’t do any of this, that basically he was afraid of guns. And he said to me ‘Bob, Bob, Bob, this is Hollywood, we really don’t give a (expletive). We make it up as we go along,’” Fuesel said.
Ness was handpicked by then-U.S. Atty. George E.Q. Johnson to lead the Bureau of Prohibition investigation against Capone. But Johnson also launched a group of IRS agents to target the crime boss. When Capone finally faced justice in 1931, he was convicted for tax evasion, and not on any of the more than 5,000 counts in Ness’ bootlegging indictment. Johnson reportedly feared that a jury might be too sympathetic to Capone’s moonshining activities since Prohibition was so unpopular, but he figured jurors would convict a tax cheat.
Capone eventually was sentenced to 11 years behind bars and became an early resident of Alcatraz Island prison off San Francisco.
Other Ness critics say his personal shortcomings contradict the strait-laced, incorruptible persona that brought him fame. By the end of his life, Ness was in debt, drinking heavily and had cheated on all three of his wives, according to several biographical accounts.
Defenders of Ness say his personal struggles were irrelevant to his crime fighting record.
Scott Sroka, a D.C. federal prosecutor and grandson of “Untouchables” member Joe Leeson, said the crime-fighting squad never claimed to be pillars of society. They “weren’t teetotalers,” he said. “They were fighting against organized crime.”
Following Burke’s thrashing of the Ness building idea, spokeswomen for Sens. Durbin and Kirk declined comment. The senators previously have released statements heralding Ness as a “tireless” federal agent whom “no amount of money could buy.”
But if the ATF renames its headquarters, retired IRS special agent Bill Paulin told aldermen, the honor would be better bestowed on one of the many federal agents who died in the line of duty.
“There’s no shortage of heroes that gave their life protecting the citizens of the United States,” said Paulin, national vice president of the Federal Criminal Investigators Association.
Tribune Washington Bureau reporter Lalita Clozel contributed.