Cover Story

Making a killing

Prosecutors charge that a reputed Mafia boss ran a sprawling criminal empire from his legal abortion business. As his trial gets underway, WORLD looks at the structure of a largely cash-based industry that is both profitable and politically protected. If it happened in Chicago, why not elsewhere? And what is the Bush administration going to do about it?

Issue: "Untouchable?," April 7, 2001

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.

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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.

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