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Old 04-20-2004, 08:11 PM
Oddessa Oddessa is offline
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Join Date: Feb 2001
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Default Charity bingo game was allegedly jackpot for crooks

Charity bingo game was allegedly jackpot for crooks

April 20, 2004


The bingo case went to trial Monday before U.S. District Judge James Zagel. You probably haven't heard much about it.

It's hardly the hottest action in the Dirksen Federal Building this week with the trial of psycho hate monger Matt Hale winding down and jury selection gearing up in the case of insurance broker extraordinaire Michael Segal. I'll get to them another day.

But there's just something irresistible about the whole concept of a charity bingo game run amok.

That's what federal prosecutors say happened in west suburban Northlake during the mid-1990s when a politically connected bunch of shady entrepreneurs hit upon the idea of using various posts of the Italian-American War Veterans to front a bingo parlor from which they allegedly skimmed at least $2.9 million.

You wouldn't think there was that much money to be made from bingo, but it can be a nice little business, especially if you know how to work the skim, and some of the original defendants in the federal case were caught on tape bragging about just how good they were at it.

The feds collected more than 1,000 hours of videotape from a camera hidden in the back room of the Grand Palace Bingo Hall, and a state revenue agent made 66 undercover visits posing as a bingo player to figure out how they were doing it.

But the feds never got around to charging anybody until two years ago, apparently never having come up with what they were primarily seeking: a provable link between the bingo operation and reputed Chicago mobster Jimmy Cozzo, who at the time was running a luxury hotel-casino on the Caribbean island of Curacao.

They did indict Cozzo's son, Phillip, 46, who they say was a hidden owner in the business.

Passing the buck

A sharply dressed and well-tanned Phillip Cozzo listened with a bemused expression while slowly working over his chewing gum as Assistant U.S. Attorney John Scully and defense attorney Ray Smith laid out differing views of the case in their opening statements.

Scully portrayed the younger Cozzo as having a central role in a racketeering conspiracy, while Smith said he was nothing more than a part-time employee paid a small salary to serve primarily as the "host" at the bingo parlor, valuable to the business because of his ties to the old Italian-American neighborhood on the Near West Side. Smith said Cozzo's mother, aunts and friends were bingo enthusiasts who frequented the Grand Palace.

Cozzo was joined at the defense table by Fuat "Frank" Useni, an Albanian immigrant who ran the kitchen in the bingo parlor before becoming an owner. The stress of being a criminal defendant in federal court was much more evident on Useni's tired visage.

Two other defendants died before the case came to trial, including one of the key figures, William Shlifka, a convicted ghost payroller who passed away last week. Shlifka, a onetime leader in the New Republican Organization of Chicago, suffered from cancer. A third alleged conspirator died before the charges were even brought.

That should make this trial a natural for the vaunted Dead Guy Defense, as in, the dead guy did it.

Three other defendants, however, have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify for the prosecution, which could complicate matters for Cozzo and Useni.

Hard to pin down

Despite the allegations, the state never has shut down the Grand Palace. The federal government's theory of the case is that the Italian-American War Veterans posts were the victims of the scheme because they should have been getting more of the money that was taken in by the Grand Palace operators. But the truth is that some of the leaders of the veterans' group were involved, and the others were willfully looking the other way because the bingo provided them more revenue than they'd ever seen previously.

As I once mentioned, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the Grand Palace scam myself during the period that the Shlifka-Cozzo bunch was running it, having been tipped by a guy trying to run a legitimate church bingo game that couldn't compete with the fancier operation that didn't play by the rules.

I even played some bingo myself there one night, but could barely keep up with the number-calling. If you don't mind the smoke, you should see serious bingo players go at it some night. It's an experience.

Unfortunately, I could never prove enough about what they were doing to get a story into the paper, and the church had to fold its bingo game, which has always made me feel a little guilty.

If you're thinking that might be why I was in Zagel's courtroom instead of sinking my hooks into Hale or Segal, I've got one word for you.

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