Updated: April 12, 2014 6:10AM
Eighty years ago, Eliot Ness and the Untouchables were part of a federal effort to bring Al Capone to justice, called in because local politicians and police were too corrupt to fight organized crime. Now, the politicians are trying to have the last word against Ness. In a bizarre move against one of Chicago’s own, Ald. Ed Burke has issued a resolution opposing a proposal by the ATF to name its Washington headquarters after Ness. The statements by the alderman and some other recent Ness detractors are inaccurate, and they insult the brave agents who risked their lives during the Capone investigation.
The anti-Ness gang alleges that because Capone was ultimately convicted for tax evasion, Ness had nothing to do with Capone’s demise. This argument is nonsense. As a federal prosecutor, I know that it takes teamwork among agents on the street, financial investigators and prosecutors in court to conduct a successful criminal investigation. As the grandson of Special Agent Joe Leeson, one of Ness’ “Untouchables,” I know that the barbs against Ness do not hold up against the historical record. In 1930, Chicago was overrun by gang violence, fueled by a demand for alcohol created by Prohibition. Local police and politicians were not up to tamping down the bloodshed, and federal authorities took notice when stray bullets started hitting civilians. IRS agents had already been combing through Capone’s finances, but these efforts had yet to bear fruit, and they didn’t quell public fear of gang violence. U.S. Attorney George E.Q. Johnson began a parallel effort to tear apart Capone’s operations and dry up Capone’s money. Johnson asked Ness to create a team of agents who could not be bought or bribed. My grandfather was called from Detroit for his ability to tail suspects in an automobile. A former Navy shipman in World War I, Leeson was also skilled in the use of an acetylene torch, which he put to good use breaking up stills and brewing equipment.
The special squad, known in the press as “the Untouchables,” put a significant strain on the outfit’s ability to keep up production and make money. The agents risked their lives, locating breweries and distilleries and then taking them down in dramatic raids, crashing through warehouse doors with a specially designed 10-ton truck. Ness used the press to insure the public that the rule of law would prevail over the violence of criminals.
After several months, the IRS team produced an indictment against Capone for tax evasion. One week later Capone was indicted again for conspiracy, including 5,000 counts of Prohibition law violations, the direct result of the Untouchables’ work. The news wires lit up with praise for the squad’s work.
U.S. Attorney Johnson had to decide which case he should bring to trial. With Prohibition almost over, a jury might very well sympathize with a bootlegger. However, a tax cheat would not garner the same benefit. Johnson took the tax case to trial and secured a conviction against Capone. While the case was on appeal, Johnson and Ness brought additional conspiracy charges against Capone as a back-up plan.
Ness and his agents developed law enforcement techniques that are fundamental to fighting organized crime today, such as wiretapping and ballistics fingerprinting. At the time, Ness was praised for his work by his superiors, the press, and by ordinary Americans who sent letters encouraging him to keep up his heroic work.
Eighty years later, Eliot Ness’ reputation for honesty and professionalism in law enforcement is no myth. He deserves to be honored for his work and the inspiration he has provided to decades of his successors in law enforcement.
Scott Leeson Sroka is a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are those of the author only and not those of the United States Attorney’s Office or the Department of Justice.