CHICAGO-The low, red brick building at 5714 West Division Street in Chicago doesn't look like it would be anyone's destination of choice when seeking health care. All around the A.C.T. Medical Center are bars, boarded-up storefronts, coin-op laundries, and check-cashing joints.
But whether on the bus or in beat-up cars, the patients do come: mostly young, mostly black or Hispanic, and mostly pregnant. The sign on the side of the building promises a cornucopia of medical services. "A.C.T. Medical Center," it reads. "Obstetrics/Gynecology/General Surgery/Foot Surgery/Free Pregnancy Testing/Same-Day Appointments."
That may sound pretty comprehensive, but two key words are missing: Abortion Clinic-or "pregnancy termination center," as the office of the Illinois Secretary of State, which issues licenses for such things, classifies it.
Federal prosecutors classify it differently: The A.C.T. Medical Center is actually a Mafia front, from which one of the city's most powerful reputed mobsters ran a multimillion-dollar empire built on gambling, bribery, and extortion.
After years of delay, the trial of Anthony Centracchio, the owner of the clinic, appears imminent. On April 12, government lawyers will appeal a district court judge's decision to suppress certain evidence gathered during nearly three years of surveillance. Once the court of appeals rules on the admissibility of such evidence, the case itself will be cleared for trial-perhaps by summer.
Pro-life advocates have long whispered about ties between the Mafia and the abortion industry. When pressed for details, however, they back down. The logic is certainly there: Abortion clinics-largely unregulated businesses that generate lots of untraceable cash-seem like a natural fit for Mafiosi looking to launder their ill-gotten gains. Until now, documentation hasn't existed. But if the government's case proves true, that's exactly what has gone down in Chicago.
Perhaps tens of thousands of pages of surveillance transcripts, wiretaps, and other evidence are locked in a vault on the 27th floor of the Dirksen Federal Building in downtown Chicago. The vast majority of the case is still under seal, but, ironically enough, defense motions to suppress specific pieces of evidence have created an intriguing paper trail. By examining dozens of those defense motions and the government's replies, WORLD has pieced together a preview of the federal case against Mr. Centracchio-and the first proof of Mafia involvement in the abortion industry.
WORLD spent three days at the Dirksen building, requesting documents one at a time, examining them on the premises and making notes, because photocopying was not permitted. What follows is clearly one-sided because the accused aren't talking. Though the Centracchio legal team has filed its briefs in the case, they're not talking to reporters.
"I've been trying these cases for 45 years, and I don't usually comment," said Raymond J. Smith, Mr. Centracchio's lead attorney. "I'm a big believer in trying cases in the courtroom."
Nevertheless, the government's case looks strong. Most of what follows is taken from months of wiretaps and surveillance videos, much of which already has been ruled admissible. Other parts of the story come from former Centracchio colleagues who are now cooperating with prosecutors. Finally, a related trial is already complete, netting two convictions and mounds of additional evidence. Soon the boss himself gets his day in court.
Anthony Centracchio didn't pioneer illegal gambling on Chicago's west side. According to a 32-page grand jury indictment dated April 13, 2000, Mr. Centracchio took over the operation when the previous boss, Louis "the Mooch" Eboli, died in 1987. The business was straightforward enough: Through companies like OK Amusement and All Games Amusement, Mr. Centracchio installed up to 500 Cherry Master, Joker Poker, and other video gambling machines in bars, restaurants, and fraternal lodges all over the west side.
The Centracchio games-unlike legal, government-regulated gambling machines-operated without mandated payout ratios. Unregulated machines can be as "tight" as the market will allow, paying out just often enough to keep the customer hooked. When a payout did occur, the indictment charges, it came in the form of a voucher, which the bartender would then redeem for cash.
But only sometimes: Business owners were told to pay only regular customers whom they knew and trusted. When strangers presented vouchers, they were to be told that the machines were for amusement only. Exact numbers are not yet available, but the Centracchio enterprise was certainly lucrative. Since a single machine can generate $100,000 a year, tens of millions of dollars may have been at stake. The boss made sure he got what was coming to him by sending associates to check every machine every week, according to the indictment. A computer in each machine tallied "ins" (coins accepted) and "outs" (monies paid). Business owners then took 40 percent of the profits, and the Centracchio organization pocketed the remaining 60 percent.
In exchange for their smaller cut, bar owners got protection from law enforcement and, in case that protection ever failed, free legal representation. But no amount of protection money could shelter Mr. Centracchio from the FBI.
Armed with RICO, the tough anti-racketeering law, federal agents descended on Chicago in 1992. With the full support of the Justice Department-Attorney General Janet Reno herself got involved at least once-warrants for wiretaps and video surveillance were easy to obtain. On Feb. 28, 1994, a judge issued a seven-page order authorizing the FBI to install a closed-circuit TV camera in the ceiling of Mr. Centracchio's office at his A.C.T. Medical Center.
For the next 10 weeks, the hidden cameras recorded a fascinating slice of Mob life. Once a month, owners of adult bookstores and porn theaters all over the greater Chicago area came in to pay their "street tax" to the boss. According to the indictment, the payments were "induced by the wrongful use of actual and threatened force, violence, and fear."
As with everything else, extortion was an all-cash business. Government surveillance tapes recorded Salvatore Cecola, one of the bookstore owners, slipping Mr. Centracchio an envelope stuffed with $20 bills on April 5, 1994, which sent the boss into a rage. "What the [expletive] is this?" he demanded. He couldn't carry around such a thick wad of cash without arousing suspicion, he explained. From then on, Mr. Cecola was to pay his street tax in $100 bills. Between the street tax, the gambling proceeds, and the profits from the abortion business, the clinic was awash in cash.
On at least seven different occasions, FBI cameras caught Mr. Centracchio sitting at his desk surrounded by piles of cash, which he sorted into stacks for the various officials on his payroll. Not one to take chances with that kind of money, he kept a 9mm Luger pistol on the premises, along with 15 cartridges-which is illegal because Mr. Centracchio already has a felony conviction and may not legally own a gun.
While women were undergoing surgery in the adjoining rooms, the clinic president received a monthly stream of visitors eager for their share of the bounty. April 2, 1994, was a typical day: FBI tapes show Mr. Centracchio stuffing cash into an envelope just before the start of business. An hour later, Robert Urbinati, a policeman in the nearby suburb of Franklin Park, entered the office with Mr. Centracchio's chief lieutenant, Thomas Tucker. After receiving what prosecutors allege was his monthly payoff, Mr. Urbinati headed back to the car with Mr. Tucker. TUCKER: "How much is here? Did you count it?" URBINATI: "I didn't count it. Do you want me to count it?" TUCKER: "Should be 24 there."
The FBI claims that handwritten figures scribbled on a calendar page show that Mr. Centracchio doled out up to $5,000 a month in such protection payments, helping to ensure that his gambling empire would continue unmolested by the authorities. But on Dec. 2, 1994, that empire began to crash around him.
Robert Natale, mayor of the Chicago suburb of Stone Park, met Mr. Tucker at the Paddlewheel Restaurant to receive what prosecutors contend was his regular bribe. As the mayor approached the table at 1:03 p.m., Mr. Tucker stood and motioned for Mr. Natale to follow him to the men's room. Two minutes later they stepped back out, and Mr. Natale headed directly to the parking lot. As he approached his car, agents swept in with search warrants. They found $1,385 in cash, including $1,000 wrapped in a white paper band labeled "1000." The handwriting, an FBI expert will testify, belonged to Mr. Centracchio.
The mayor, like Mr. Urbinati, has been indicted on charges of racketeering, illegal gambling, and obstruction of justice. In a panic, Mr. Tucker tried to warn his boss. Fearing surveillance at the clinic, he went instead to a shop called Beauty on Broadway, where Mr. Centracchio was due for an appointment. "I went to the beauty shop," Mr. Tucker told Mr. Urbinati in a government-bugged phone call. "You know, where he knows that broad real good. He's going there at 2:30. I told the girl what happened.... She's got everything written down. I told her to burn it after she gets done."
But the written details at the beauty shop were the least of their concern, and Mr. Tucker knew it. In a barely coherent, obscenity-filled call to his wife, Mr. Tucker ranted about the FBI raid, as law-enforcement officials listened in: "Wiped me out. Took all my money. Took everything ... 'We're from the FBI.' [Expletive], a thousand dollars. I just give Bobby [expletive] thousand.... I had eighteen hundred dollars in there. They wiped me out, Lee. Didn't leave me with a penny. Took every [expletive] thing I had."
The end was in sight. For months, the conspirators had idly speculated on what they might be charged with if they were ever caught.
The speculation was not so idle anymore. With the noose tightening, Mr. Tucker called another Centracchio underling, Nicholas Ciotti, who would later be convicted of money laundering. The two men reminisced about the good old days of organized crime in Chicago. "A dying art, Buddy," Mr. Ciotti said wistfully. "I wish I was a shoe salesman.... I always told Bobby, I wish I was a [expletive] shoe salesman. You go home at five o'clock."
If the government's case persuades the court, Mr. Centracchio, Mr. Tucker, and their colleagues won't be going home at 5:00 any time soon. Facing charges of racketeering, extortion, illegal gambling, intimidation of witnesses, possessing unlawful firearms, and perjury, Mr. Centracchio could face 20 years in prison. Now 70, he would likely die behind bars. The government also has signaled it intends to seize both the A.C.T. Medical Center and Mr. Centracchio's home in nearby Oak Brook.
To make their case, prosecutors plan to call up to 150 witnesses, including some 70 FBI agents who worked on the long-running investigation. The trial could last for weeks and is sure to rivet public attention in Chicago, a city with a Mafia history going back at least to Al Capone. "The Outfit," as the local Mafia is called, is woven tightly into the fabric of life in the city. Brutal gangland slayings once dominated the headlines, with more than 1,100 Mob-related murders recorded between 1919 and 1990.
In the '90s, however, the shootings, bombings, and disappearances stopped as the Outfit turned its attention to less violent-and more profitable-pursuits. According to the Chicago Crime Commission, the Outfit makes its millions through gambling, extortion, and labor racketeering, usually carried out under the guise of legitimate businesses such as construction, catering, and janitorial services. But abortion? Even Mafia experts are surprised at that one. "Abortion clinics don't really have any history with organized crime," one official close to the Centracchio case told WORLD. "It's kind of like drugs: The older bosses considered it a nasty business. The Mafia wouldn't necessarily have approved of the abortion clinic." Still, money is the ultimate boss in the underworld, and many mobsters have gotten over whatever natural aversion they might have to the drug trade.
Though the Centracchio case is the first documented example of Mob influence in the abortion industry, it could be more widespread, according to Carol Everett, a former abortion clinic owner who quit the business after six years and 35,000 abortions, defecting to the pro-life side. "It's a cash cow," she said of her former profession. "Because of the so-called right to privacy, it's completely shrouded in secrecy. It's never been regulated; there's no accountability." Ms. Everett says she routinely kept two sets of books for her clinics in order to shield profits from the IRS. Because the vast majority of patients pay cash, there is no paper trail of insurance claims or credit-card receipts. With abortions costing $350 to $8,000 (depending on the stage of the pregnancy), clinic owners generally expect to gross about $250,000 a month in unreported, untraceable cash.
Would Anthony Centracchio, allegedly a corrupt and ruthless Mob boss, hesitate to exploit the built-in advantages of the abortion business? The FBI certainly didn't think so. One whole team of investigators focused on financial irregularities at the clinic, according to officials close to the case, who refused to speak for the record because the trial is pending. They suspected Mr. Centracchio of Medicaid fraud-applying for Medicaid reimbursement for a patient's foot surgery, for instance, when he had in fact provided an abortion for which he'd already been paid in cash. (Medicaid does not reimburse for abortions except in rare cases.) The FBI also believed Mr. Centracchio was billing medical services to stolen credit cards, which he then disposed of. And, of course, he was suspected of laundering his gambling profits through the clinic's books.
Such painstaking financial investigations have long been used to bring down Mafia figures. Al Capone was suspected of murder, robbery, extortion, and bootlegging, but it was tax evasion that finally sent him to prison. Two other Centracchio associates have already received sentences of up to 16 years for money laundering in a related case. But of all the indictments handed down for Mr. Centracchio himself, not one had to do with the financial operations of his clinic.
Officials close to the case thought they would get him on money laundering and Medicaid fraud. Why were those charges eventually dropped, when they might have been easier to prove than a charge like racketeering? The Centracchio investigation was reviewed at the highest levels of the Reno Justice Department-a department with an infamously pro-abortion tilt. The idea of Mafia-run abortion clinics harkens back to the seedy, dangerous "back-alley" days that Roe vs. Wade was supposed to have ended. For professional pro-abortion groups, proven Mafia involvement in the abortion business would be a disaster, with the potential to undermine women's confidence in an industry that is unrelentingly promoted as safe and professional.
Is it possible that charges related to the "legitimate" operations of the clinic were buried for political reasons? Asa Hutchinson, now a Republican congressman, was a U.S. Attorney in Arkansas from 1982 to 1985. He says that during his tenure, prosecutors had complete freedom to pursue whatever charges they thought were best. "In the Reagan administration, we did not receive any pressure from the Justice Department if it was a politically sensitive case. They left it up to the U.S. attorneys to charge appropriately and enforce the law.... But every administration might be different," he added.
Apart from the questions of the charges in this case, the bigger issue is, just how widespread is Mafia influence in the abortion industry? Was the Centracchio case an isolated incident, or are women in other cities seeking medical attention at clinics that are, in reality, fronts for the Mob? The question is more than merely academic: One law enforcement source, who could not speak on the record because the case is pending, told WORLD that he saw Mr. Centracchio, in his clinic office, pull out his gun to threaten an associate. Despite such concerns, Mr. Centracchio has continued to operate his clinic for more than five years while awaiting trial.
Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, says that's outrageous: "Women have a right to know that this clinic is allegedly being used as a front for organized crime. It's no coincidence that this man was collecting money for adult bookstores, which exploit women, while at the same time exploiting women's misery through abortion. This man is gambling with women's lives."
Feminists for Life, like most other pro-life groups, has long called for increased reporting requirements at abortion clinics, and Ms. Foster hopes the Centracchio case will finally make lawmakers take notice. "Women's clinics are held to a lesser standard than veterinary clinics in terms of reporting requirements," she said. "Those who oppose [transparent reporting] clearly show their lack of interest in protecting the health of women."
As long as clinic owners can take cover behind Byzantine corporate structures and slip loads of cash through loopholes in reporting laws, the abortion industry will continue to offer a natural haven to underworld bosses.
In a politically protected business, Mr. Centracchio found a safe and profitable cover for his alleged criminal empire. Was he the only one? The new administration could answer that question, if it has the will to prove that no one-not even an abortionist-is truly untouchable.