By Hillel Levin

From When Corruption Was King
(Carroll & Graf Publishers, October 2004)

"The extent of Mafia influence on Chicago is still not fully appreciated, even by long-time residents. We think of Mobs hijacking trucks -- not ballot boxes."

Most cities have one overriding claim to fame. Say Los Angeles and you think about the movies; say Paris you think art; and Detroit, cars. But when people, the world over, say Chicago, they think of something less marketable: Organized Crime. It is a stain that no amount of accomplishment or image-boosting will ever wipe clean.

The city’s grim reputation is rooted back in the Roaring Twenties when Al Capone emerged victorious from gang warfare and went on to become a household name. Oddly enough, far less is known about his successors and their grip on the city during the last half of the twentieth century. But that is when Chicago’s Mafia became the single most powerful organized crime family in American history. While Mob bosses knocked each other off on the East Coast, in Chicago they united into a monolithic force called the Outfit. They would literally control the cops, the courts and the politicians – a corrupt trifecta that Capone dreamed about, but never came close to achieving. The Outfit demanded a cut of every criminal enterprise in the region, from a lowly car theft or private poker game to a jewelry heist. To enforce this “street tax,” their Hit Men killed with impunity, knowing that crooked judges would throw out any case against them. Their bookies brazenly took bets in nightclubs, at racetracks and even in government office buildings, confident that contacts in the police department (at one point as high up as the Chief of Detectives) would warn them before the vice squad could make a raid. Mobsters ran Chicago union locals, and national organizations for the Laborers and the Teamsters. This unprecedented combination of brute force and political clout let the bosses feed at the public trough with no-show jobs for their goons and municipal contracts for themselves and their associates. Government became one of their most lucrative rackets.

In his 1969 book, Captive City, investigative journalist Ovid Demaris called the Outfit, “the most politically insulated and police-pampered ‘family’ this side of Sicily” and estimated, even then, that their take was in the billions. With such total domination of their home turf, they could wander far and wide. By the Seventies, the FBI reported that Chicago’s Mob controlled all organized criminal activity west of the Mississippi – including and especially Las Vegas. Millions were skimmed from casinos like the Tropicana and the Stardust, and bundles of cash, stuffed in green army duffel bags, found their way back to the Outfit’s bosses. Meanwhile New York’s mobsters had to content themselves with the slim pickings of Atlantic City.

Although other urban areas had their share of corruption, Chicago remained unique for its mixture of Organized Crime and political organization. The extent of Mafia influence on the city is still not fully appreciated, even by long-time residents. We think of Mobs hijacking trucks or businesses – not ballot boxes. But the ability to deliver votes and manipulate elected officials provided more muscle to the Outfit than their army of enforcers.

In the shadows, at the controls of the Mob’s political machine, was an ex-felon with a vaguely ethnic name and an obscure position in the Democratic Party. Born Pasqualino Marchone, he had been a protégé of Capone and supposedly served prison time for robbery in the Thirties. Over the next three decades, he shed his thug exterior and took on a mantle of respectability along with the new name of Pat Marcy. Most weekdays he sat in a restaurant across the street from City Hall, ensconced at a corner table with a private phone. Dressed in three-piece suits, smoking fine cigars, he looked like his fellow diners from the local banks, government offices and law firms.

His official title was Secretary for the Democratic Committee of Chicago’s First Ward. To an outsider, his domain may have sounded like some quaint throwback. But for Chicagoans, the First Ward was a city unto itself – a political precinct carved out at the turn of the century like the richest vein in a gold mine. It extended from the slums and factories south of the city, through the central business district and up to the very wealthiest neighborhoods of the Gold Coast. And to see the company Pat Marcy kept at lunch, you’d think he was the mayor. Aldermen, state legislators, judges, congressmen, city officials, police chiefs and union leaders – all regularly shared meals or dropped by to show the deference reserved for a man of great influence.

In that same restaurant Marcy had other less public meetings away from the spotlight of the “First Ward table.” Thursdays he would spend a few minutes in a booth with one or the other of the Outfit’s most notorious team of Hit Men. Out in the adjoining lobby, as office workers rushed past and where no FBI bug could eavesdrop, he barked at lawyers and politicians, demanding that cases get fixed or kickbacks get paid. In bathrooms and unmarked offices elsewhere in the building, he conferred with the elderly bosses at the top of the Outfit. During the Seventies and Eighties some of them would shuffle off to prison with the advent of new racketeering laws and federal investigations, but Marcy remained untouchable – along with his coterie of politicians, judges and lawyers who became known as the Inner Circle of the First Ward.

Although the FBI tried to penetrate the First Ward with Mob informants and wiretaps, Marcy was too careful to be caught and too valuable for the bosses to give up. Besides, his political connections extended through both parties and ran from Chicago to Washington, DC. This clout made him radioactive to the ever-changing cast of U.S. Attorneys who rotated through the Northern Illinois office. It was one thing to target a small-time magistrate or alderman for taking a bribe. It was quite another thing to go after Marcy and charge that a Mafia figure was calling the shots at City Hall and the county courthouses. It sounded too outrageous to be true – a slap not only at the politicians and judges, but an insult to Chicago’s business and media leaders, who even before Capone labored to put the best face above the city’s “Big Shoulders.”

To crack Marcy and Mob rule in Chicago, the Feds needed a lucky break. It arrived on a Saturday afternoon in 1986, when criminal lawyer Bob Cooley popped into the local office of the Organized Crime Strike Force. By chance, the chief attorney happened to be in, catching up on paperwork. When he asked what Cooley wanted, he replied, “I’d like to help you destroy the First Ward. I’d like to help you destroy Pat Marcy.”

Cooley was the last person that Pat Marcy or the Mob bosses would have expected to turn on them. Outside of the Mafia, few others had profited so flamboyantly from the corruption. For four years, Cooley personally handled most First Ward criminal cases involving Outfit soldiers and associates, and it helped make him rich. He took payment from his clients only in cash and at times didn’t know what to do with it all. He might bet hundreds of thousands with bookmakers, buy a health club or put up the money to start an Italian restaurant. Although he had a natural flair for the courtroom and won many cases legitimately, he let his clients know he would do whatever it took to get a favorable verdict. He solidified his reputation as the ultimate fixer when he paid off a “law and order” judge to get an acquittal on a murder charge for Harry Aleman, a Hit Man dubbed the Outfit’s “killing machine.”

Unlike the other Mob lawyers, Cooley’s relationship with his clients went well beyond the courtroom. He was the life of their parties, hanging out with the young bucks at the hottest bars and nightclubs, and dining at swankier spots with the older bosses. He bet with the Mob’s bookies, traded girlfriends with the crew leaders and, on some occasions, got in fistfights with them. A big part of his outlaw charm was that Cooley never appeared to take anyone or anything too seriously. He parked his luxury sedan in the bus stop outside court or, on occasion, in the Mayor’s spot outside City Hall. He wore a gold chain and open neck shirt in court when everyone else wore ties. He brought his dog into fine restaurants and office buildings.

But however affable Cooley looked to the Outfit from the outside, he was boiling inside, deeply conflicted about his wealth and the scummy patrons who helped make it. For three-and-a-half years after he walked into the Strike Force office, Cooley would wear a hidden recording device on some of the most dangerous men in America, and helped the government develop damning cases against them. Always Cooley kept pushing his investigation higher and higher to the top Mob bosses and Chicago’s most powerful politicians, even as some of his federal handlers tried to limit his targets to small-fry bookies and judges.

In 1989 the Feds finally brought a halt to his investigation, which they now called, “Operation Gambat,” for Gambling Attorney. When Cooley suddenly disappeared, and news about his double life leaked out, panic shot through the upper echelons of the Outfit and Chicago’s Democratic Party. The FBI reported that the Mob put a million dollar bounty on Cooley’s head. All the alarm was warranted. Before the end of the year, the U.S. Attorney General flew into Chicago to announce the first wave of several sweeping Gambat indictments.

Over the course of the Nineties, Cooley repeatedly returned to the city to testify as the central witness in Grand Jury proceedings, hearings, and eventually, eight trials. Time and again he faced renowned criminal defense lawyers. Time and again, their clients were found guilty. When Cooley and the prosecutors were done, twenty-four individuals were convicted or had taken a guilty plea.

But the significance of Operation Gambat went far beyond the headcount of all those sent to prison. What had once been a matter of speculation for a few gadfly newspaper columnists and reporters was now fact. No one could any longer deny that the Mob had influence on Chicago’s leading politicians. Among those Cooley helped convict were the First Ward Alderman, a Corporation Counsel, and the Assistant Majority Leader in the Illinois Senate. Before a U.S. District Court judge imposed a sentence on one of them, he lamented that democracy in Chicago was “the same as any other banana republic or corrupt regime.”

No one could deny that the Mob had influence on Chicago’s judicial system, either. Among those sent to prison were the presiding judge for the prestigious Chancery Court and the only judge in America ever convicted for fixing murder cases. In yet another legal landmark stemming from the investigation, state prosecutors overturned the Double Jeopardy provision of the Fifth Amendment and re-tried the Hit Man who had been previously acquitted (with Cooley’s help) in a rigged trial.

In the wake of Operation Gambat, the establishment was finally forced to take action. The Illinois Supreme Court’s “Special Commission on the Administration of Justice” reviewed the evidence in Cooley’s cases and called for wide-ranging reforms in the way judges are appointed and assigned trials in the state. The First Ward was whittled down to a fishhook fraction of its former size and, with the help of Cooley’s testimony, federal trustees wrested control of some unions back from the mobsters. Significant remnants of the Outfit remain, but they have lost much of their power to influence or intimidate. Gangster hits in Chicago, which were once commonplace, are now rare.

With so much impact in so many areas – the judiciary, politics and crime – and with so many high-profile convictions, Operation Gambat ranks as the crowning achievement of the Organized Crime Strike Force. But, until now, the full story behind the investigation has remained largely untold because Bob Cooley has chosen not to tell it. This has not stopped others from speaking for him, starting with the reporters who covered the many trials and his hours of testimony. Several true-crime books have also touched on individual Gambat cases or aspects of the investigation. A character clearly based on Cooley appears in the novel Personal Injuries by Chicago lawyer Scott Turow, as well as a quickie TV movie called, The Fixer, starring Jon Voight.

But none of these accounts – fiction and non-fiction – begin to explain why Cooley decided to cooperate with federal authorities. There have been plenty of theories – most of them propagated by attorneys for the Gambat defendants. Some have him drowning in gambling debts to bookmakers and in fear of their enforcers. Others claim he was on the verge of indictment himself for bribery or tax fraud. Such speculation, intended to discredit Cooley’s testimony, became the centerpiece of defense efforts in almost all the Gambat trials. Obviously, it never carried much weight with a jury. In the words of Tom Durkin, the assistant U.S. Attorney who worked most closely with Cooley, “Bob is every bit the hero because he didn’t have to do what he did.”

As Cooley tells it, several different forces drove his decision to inform. For the most part, it was an act of conscience. This may sound laughable to anyone acquainted with the wild lifestyle Cooley once led. As he is the first to admit, morality was never his strong suit. However, the seeds for his later transformation were sown back in his childhood. He grew up in a large, loving, and devout Catholic family. His father was a truly incorruptible cop – too honest to advance far in the Chicago police department – and both of his grandfathers, also policemen, died in the line of duty. From the start, Cooley was encouraged to follow the straight and narrow path laid down by his parents, although he always felt the tug to stray from it as well.

If anything, Pat Marcy became the mentor for his dark side, and Cooley’s struggle with the two conflicting father figures was well under way years before Operation Gambat started. At one point, he refused to betray one of his clients as an informant and an Outfit crew leader ordered Cooley killed. Although he managed, with his typical moxie, to lift the contract from his head, Cooley lost any sympathy for his Mob benefactors. Gradually, he became filled with self-loathing about what he had done for Marcy and the Outfit. Those feelings only intensified when he learned that a crooked lawyer may have rigged the trial that acquitted his grandfather’s killer. When Marcy forced him into fixing one more trial – this one involving the assault on a policewoman – Cooley could take no more. With an impulsiveness that he immediately regretted, he found himself at the Strike Force door.

It’s unlikely that any other mole could have taken Operation Gambat as far as Cooley. His zeal was nearly suicidal and partly fueled by his belief that destroying the First Ward and the Outfit had become his life’s mission. But there would be few earthly rewards in the investigation for this lapsed Catholic. Instead, he would star in his own version of the Passion Play. The more good he did, the more he was made to suffer – with each station of the cross that much more degrading and painful. After he “came in” to the government, he became convinced that some of the Feds – the U.S. Attorney in particular – were out to stifle and demoralize him at every pass. First he was stopped from gambling, which provided most of his entertainment and social life; and then from practicing criminal law, which provided much of his income. Cash that once gushed into his firm now barely trickled.

When the authorities finally unveiled the full scope of Operation Gambat, Cooley’s central role should have earned him some redemption for his years of wrongdoing. Instead, like John Dean and Frank Serpico before him, Cooley discovered that the public and the media reserve a special scorn for informants – no matter how beneficial their information. During the trials, Cooley lost the gold chain and transformed himself from the cocky counselor to humble witness. Defense attorneys he once considered pathetic pretenders to his throne heaped abuse on him in court and used their media friends to vilify him in the local papers and on TV. The Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission moved to disbar Cooley, based on his admissions in court, before they took similar action against any of those lawyers and judges ultimately convicted in his trials. Finally, as the last nail in the cross – for the sake of his own safety – he was exiled forever from the city he loved so much.

Outside the courtroom, Cooley also broke the mold. He refused the federal Witness Protection Program, and although the government has helped him assume another name, he has not been provided with security or further resources. He trusts his own instincts better than those of the bureaucracy. He has lived in dozens of places around the country and is always ready to move again at short notice.

Despite the extreme changes he has weathered in his life, Cooley remains much the same as he was in Chicago. Garrulous as ever, he keeps in touch with a large circle of family and friends that now includes many of the agents and prosecutors involved with Gambat. In each of his new locations, he finds new hangouts and buddies.

He remains obsessed with his investigation and the legacy it has left behind in Chicago. He wonders if the city has ever come to grips with the enormity of Operation Gambat’s revelations. This obsession, as much as anything, has driven him to write this book with me and finally get his side of the story on the record.

Cooley does not try to buff up his own image. He’s open about his flaws and his own illegal activities. His brutal honesty is exactly what makes his story so credible – buttressed by testimony – over hundreds of hours – that was never significantly impeached by any of the defense counsel he faced.

Unlike other witnesses against the Mafia, he offers a perspective on Organized Crime that literally extends from the thug on the street to the equally brutal, if more sophisticated, bosses at the top. Along the way, he details the centrality of gambling to Mob culture, the mindlessly violent nightlife, and the Outfit’s bizarre, longstanding relationship with elements of the Chicago Police Department.

Most important, Cooley reveals how easily the criminal world intersected with the supposedly legitimate world of law and politics. Old arrest records were dismissed as ancient history. Sweetheart contracts and rigged trials were laughed off in the press as “business as usual.” Cynicism took the place of outrage, and the voting public collectively turned away.

As we complete this book, some individuals from Cooley’s old Mob circles are back in the news. The Chicago Sun-Times exposed a municipal “Hired Truck Program” that funneled millions in public funds to “organized crime figures.” Meanwhile, Richard Daley, in his fifteenth year as mayor, with no challenger in sight, now calls for Chicago to have its very own casino. He assures one and all that he needs no help keeping legalized gambling free of Mob influences. In sum, conditions are ripe for remnants of the Outfit to mount a comeback, and there’s plenty at stake to attract them. It is just the time for Bob Cooley to speak up again.

When Corruption Was King © 2004 by Robert Cooley and Hillel Levin



  From 1986 to 1989, criminal defense attorney Robert Cooley wore a recording device and developed criminal cases against mobsters and corrupt officials. His investigation led to nine federal trials in the Nineties and convictions or guilty pleas for twenty-four.  

“Bob is every bit the hero because he didn’t have to
do what he did.”

Tom Durkin, former First
Assistant U.S. Attorney

“The man is a paragon of corruption. The man is
walking slime.”

Criminal Defense Attorney
Edward M. Genson

Never has a federal investigation accomplished
so much, and never has an investigation revolved as
much around one man. But
to this day, the reasons why Cooley decided to cooperate with federal authorities remain a mystery.

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