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4:39 pm
Tue March 11, 2014

Move To Honor Prohibition-Era 'Untouchable' Hits A Snag

Originally published on Wed March 12, 2014 7:14 pm

Eliot Ness, the famed Prohibition-era agent often credited with bringing down the empire of Chicago mobster Al Capone, is perhaps best known to many from fictional portrayals on the big and small screens.

Although Ness is a legendary figure, some politicians are debating whether the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in Washington should bear his name.

Ness began his career as a Prohibition agent in 1926. Four years later, he was the special agent in charge of going after Capone's bootlegging operation.

U.S. Sens. Mark Kirk and Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio all admire Ness' tireless effort to get public enemy No. 1. That's just one of the reasons they say the headquarters of the ATF, the successor to the Bureau of Prohibition, should be named after Ness.

Not so fast, says Chicago Alderman Edward Burke. He spearheaded a resolution approved by the Chicago City Council telling the senators that they should drop the idea and think of a more worthy agent.

"It's my opinion that Eliot Ness is essentially a Hollywood myth," Burke argues.

Here's what is not up for debate: Al Capone terrorized Chicago for years with gangland-style shootings, and bribed law enforcement officers and others to get his way. So Ness selected the "Untouchables" to go after him: agents considered incorruptible and with special skills.

At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service had Capone in its sights. Retired IRS Special Agent Bob Feusel met former members of the Untouchables when he joined the agency in 1958.

It was during that time that he got to know the real Eliot Ness, and he says he wasn't too impressed. "According to their testimony to me, he was afraid of guns, and he barely left the office," he says.

Federal prosecutor Scott Leeson Sroka, a grandson of one of the Untouchables, says the stories he's heard are entirely different. And he says the parallel investigations by the Prohibition unit and the IRS marked one of the first unified attacks against an organized crime syndicate in U.S. history.

The Untouchables, Sroka says, "were literally tearing apart Capone's production facilities and making him unable to conduct his business."

Ness, a smart guy going after the wiseguys, became the face of organized crime-fighting in Chicago. Nearly 30 years later, the agent's exploits — and some invented ones — were hyped by actor Robert Stack in the television series The Untouchables. Kevin Costner later portrayed the agent in a 1987 movie of the same name.

So why rail against putting Ness' name on a building in Washington?

Alderman Burke says he would "like to have Chicago history reflected in the appropriate, truthful way."

But there's no indication that the U.S. senators are backing off their resolution to name the ATF building for Ness — and a statement from the ATF calls Ness a proven and innovative leader.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Name the Prohibition era federal agent credited with bringing down Chicago mobster Al Capone. Of course, it's Eliot Ness, also known as the leader of The Untouchables. Ness is a legendary figure and yet, some politicians are debating whether a Washington building should bear his name.

Here's NPR Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Eliot Ness got his job as a Prohibition agent in 1926. And four years later, he was the special agent in charge of going after Al Capone's bootlegging operation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE UNTOUCHABLES")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You don't care.

KEVIN COSTNER: Now he does. Come on, Capone, you want to fight? You want to fight? You and me, right here? That's it. Come on. What's the matter? You afraid to come out from behind your men? You afraid to stand up for yourself?

CORLEY: In the 1987 movie "The Untouchables," Kevin Costner portrayed Eliot Ness. Three U.S. senators, Mark Kirk and Dirk Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, admire the tireless effort of the real Ness to get public enemy number one. That's just one of the reasons why they say the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should bear his name. The ATS is the successor of the Prohibition unit.

Not so fast, says Chicago Alderman Ed Burke. He spearheaded a resolution approved by the Chicago City Council, telling the senators they should drop the idea and think of a more worthy agent.

EDWARD BURKE: It's my opinion that Eliot Ness is essentially a Hollywood myth.

CORLEY: But here's what is not up for debate. Al Capone terrorized Chicago with gangland-style shootings and bribed law enforcement officers and others to get his way. So, Ness selected untouchables, agents considered incorruptible and with special skills. At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service had Capone in its sights. Retired Special IRS Agent Bob Feusel met former members of the untouchables when he joined the IRS in 1958.

BOB FEUSEL: It was during that time that I got to understand the real Eliot Ness.

CORLEY: And he wasn't too impressed.

FEUSEL: According to their testimony to me, he was afraid of guns and he barely left the office.

CORLEY: Federal prosecutor Scott Leeson Sroka, a grandson of one of the untouchables, says the stories he's heard are entirely different. And he says the parallel investigations by the Prohibition unit and the IRS marked one of the first unified attacks against an organized crime syndicate. And Sroka says the untouchables were...

SCOTT LEESON SROKA: Were literally tearing apart Capone's production facilities and making him unable to conduct his business.

CORLEY: Ness was a smart guy, going after the wise guys, and he became the face of organized crime-fighting in Chicago. Nearly 30 years later, the hype of his exploits - and some invented ones - were playing out on TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNTOUCHABLES")

ROBERT STACK: (As Eliot Ness) We have 300 agents in the Chicago district and the mob still has breweries all over the city. Even run their beer trucks right through the loop. What if you have a special squad? Small, operating on its own, every man thoroughly investigated, brought in from all parts of the country, men who'll spit on Capone's grafts, just a few he can't buy.

CORLEY: "The Untouchables" starring actor Robert Stack helped spread the federal agent's fame. So why rail against Ness' name on a building in Washington? Here's Alderman Ed Burke.

BURKE: I like to have Chicago history reflected in the appropriate, truthful way.

CORLEY: There's no indication that the U.S. senators are backing off their resolution to put Ness' name on the ATF building, and a statement from the ATF calls Ness a proven and innovative leader. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.