CHICAGO (AP) — An effort to scrub Eliot Ness’s reputation as the federal lawman who brought down Al Capone came to Chicago’s City Hall on Friday.
In a hearing that was unusual for focusing on events that played out 80 years ago, a city council committee voted to send a resolution to the full council next week that would urge federal lawmakers not to name a federal building in Washington, D.C., after the famed Prohibition agent.
“The notion that he put Al Capone behind bars is pure unadulterated Hollywood fiction,” said Alderman Ed Burke, who has been pushing for the resolution ever since he heard about the proposal to name the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives headquarters after Ness.
During the meeting, Burke relayed what he’s learned about Ness. The committee also heard a tutorial from a group of retired federal agents, who told stories about how Ness grabbed headlines and — thanks to a book and movies — has been given credit for heroics he had nothing to do with.
“He was afraid of guns and barely left his office,” former IRS agent Bob Fuesel said. His own study of Ness began more than a half century ago when he heard about Ness from old-timers who’d been in Ness’ unit, “The Untouchables.”
Fuesel got a better reception Friday than he did when he tried to tell Kevin Costner the same thing as an adviser to the 1987 film, “The Untouchables.” Costner, he said, quickly set him straight on how little Hollywood cares about historical accuracy.
Ness, who died in 1957, wasn’t involved in the tax evasion investigation, the agents and Burke told the committee Friday, telling of the painstaking investigation of handwriting samples from a ledger that led agents to a key witness in the investigation — at a dog track in Florida.
The agents were quick to say that Ness did battle Capone’s bootlegging operation and put together the incorruptible unit that raided some of Capone’s breweries.
“He did a good job,” said another retired IRS agent, Bill Desmond, who pointed out that Ness put together a case that resulted in a few thousand violations of the nation’s Prohibition act.
The problem, Desmond said, is that prosecutors felt the tax evasion charge was stronger, largely because they were worried jurors wouldn’t convict anyone providing them with booze.
At least one member of the committee wondered aloud before the hearing why the council was concerning itself with this particular chapter of Chicago’s history.
“To me, there’s more important things to worry about then the name of a building in Washington, D.C. that we have nothing to do with,” said Alderman Nicholas Sposato, who did not stick around for the vote.
Burke acknowledged the issue “is not the most important thing we are going to talk about,” but said as long as the U.S. Senate is considering such a move, it merits the council’s attention.
Naming a federal building is a big deal, Burke added, and said there are plenty of agents who deserve such an honor.
“They sacrificed for their country,” Fuesel said.
The offices of two of the three U.S. senators pushing to name the building after Ness — Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio — said in an email they still support the effort. The office of Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, could not immediately be reached for comment.