The Case Of The Singing Sheriff
Warbling Songs Of Corruption On The Witness Stand, Rudy Bartolomei Sent Many Of His Former Lake County, Ind.,
Cronies To Jail, Managing To Save His Own Skin-and A Fortune In The Process
November 13, 1988|By Article by John O`Brien and Ed Baumann, Tribune reporters.
It started innocently enough, making sausages in the family meat market in Gary, and ended lots of money later with Rudy Bartolomei not being Rudy Bartolomei anymore ``He became the maximum corrupter of Lake County who thought he was the Sheriff of Nottingham,`` is how Gary attorney J. Michael Katz describes Bartolomei, a onetime family friend who isn`t that anymore, either.
Personable, dark-haired Bartolomei first caught the voters` attention when he returned home from the jungles of New Guinea at the end of World War II with hero medals on his chest and an ardent desire to enter a career of public service.
By 1983 he had become sheriff of Lake County, a place where some sheriffs have a way of being remembered. Sheriff Lillian Holley, for example, won her place in history by foolishly posing for publicity pictures with bank robber John Dillinger just before he bluffed his way out of her jail with a wooden handgun in 1934. Bartolomei, on the other hand, will be remembered as the man who put people in jail. Very Important People.
He did it without arresting a single one of them. Each was an integral part of his own web of cronyism and corruption. And when the roof fell in on Bartolomei`s world, he marched into court wearing a Halloween fright mask and blew the whistle on the whole crew in a desperate (and highly successful) bid to save his own skin.
Then last month, as dozens of Lake County`s most lucrative political plums turned into rotten apples and jailhouse doors began clanging shut behind other high-ranking public officials, Bartolomei slipped off into oblivion, a wealthy man.
That`s why he isn`t Rudy Bartolomei anymore. Bartolomei has been officially erased from the face of the Earth, and the man who used to be him has been given a new identity and a secret place to start his life anew. Federal prosecutors can do that for you if you sing the right notes on the witness stand, and the onetime sausagemaker from Gary evolved into a regular nightingale.
He bagged more biggies for the feds than a game hunter on safari. If it were possible for Rudy Whoever-He-Now-Is to mount his trophies on his gameroom wall, wherever that is, the most prominent display would feature the scowling countenances of:
- Frank A.J. Stodola, 66, of Hammond, a former judge and county commissioner: sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for racketeering and extortion and ordered to forfeit $10,800 in bribe money, amid charges that he sold his commisioner`s office ``to the highest bidder.``
- Michael Jankovich, 76, of Hobart, former Lake County assessor and longtime local Democratic power: sentenced to prison for 6 years, fined $250,000 and ordered to forfeit $11,700 in bribe receipts, after pleading guilty to charges of racketeering and extortion in soliciting bribes from businessmen in return for cutting their tax bills.
- Noah Atterson Spann, 48, of East Chicago, the highest elected black county executive and a fellow county commissioner with Bartolomei: sentenced to 20 years in prison for racketeering conspiracy, fined $25,000 and ordered to forfeit $29,615 in payoff money.
- Rudy Byron, 51, of Gary, a Spann protege and former Lake County inspector: sentenced to 9 years in prison and fined $15,000 for accepting payoffs to help two janitorial firms get lucrative county contracts and for concealing payments of $50,000 from his income-tax returns.
And leave room for more. Lake County`s last ``political`` sheriff-who also helped change the time-honored procedure for selecting the man who would wear the top lawman`s badge-isn`t through yet.
All because of 10 lousy votes. Just 10 votes was all it took to eventually blow clear out of the water one of the most corrupt political machines Northern Indiana had ever seen and to bounce Bartolomei somewhere into No-One-Knows Land.
The wheels started turning on Saturday night, Oct. 29, 1983, three weeks after the death of Lake County Sheriff Chris Anton. A total of 454 Lake County Democratic precinct committeemen met at the Lake County Government Center in Crown Point to determine who would serve the remaining three years and two months of Anton`s term.
His widow, Anna, who worked for her husband in the sheriff`s civil division, made no bones about it. She wanted the job because she felt she was ``entitled to it.`` But Bartolomei-Rudy Bart, his friends called him-threw the big patronage post up for grabs when he declared that he, too, was a candidate. Bartolomei, then 60 but looking much younger with his dyed black hair, had been a precinct committeeman in Gary for 33 years, district captain for more than 25 years and had served as a county commissioner for 7. It was time to move up, and Sheriff Anton`s death from cancer created the long-awaited stepping-stone.
Dorothy Gillham, a longtime friend of Bartolomei and his administrative aide in the sheriff`s office, quoted Anna Anton as saying at the time, ``He either gets out of the race, or he will be reading about himself in the (Gary) Post-Tribune.`` Mrs. Anton, who is now the county auditor, says in a recent interview, ``I don`t ever remember saying that.``
In any event, Bartolomei wouldn`t budge. The precinct committeemen voted, and Bartolomei won by 10 votes-232 to 222. The first thing Bartolomei said after accepting his colleagues` congratulations was that he intended to get himself some police training. He added that he intended to run for election for a full term in 1986. As for the widow Anton, she could keep her job with the sheriff`s department. ``Rudy Bartolomei will take care of Annie Anton,`` the newly crowned sheriff triumphantly declared.
Bartolomei took the oath of office Nov. 1, and he had no sooner settled into Chris Anton`s old chair than the Gary FBI office began receiving anonymous telephone calls volunteering dibs and dabs of dirt about him:
``. . . Rudy got a woman named Tommie Jackson on the county payroll, but she`s really working as a maid for him and his wife in their house on Adams Avenue. . . .``
``. . . While he was commissioner, Rudy assigned county employees to do work for his family, on county time with county materials. . . .``
``. . . Three county employees sanded and varnished Rudy`s power boat, on taxpayers` time. . . .``
``. . . Rudy had county workers assembling outdoor political signs for his re-election campaign in 1980. . . .``
``. . . Rudy sent a county employee over to move furniture at his daughter`s apartment. . . .``
``. . . Three guys in county trucks moved furniture for Rudy`s sister from the family grocery in Gary to his sister`s home in Crown Point. . . .``
``. . . Rudy`s got county workers out at his lakeside cottage. They`re fixing windows, sanding and repainting the walls and rebuilding the stairs. . . .``
``. . . Rudy`s wife, Dorothy, directed a female county employee to make decorative shutters for their home in Gary. . . .``
Special Agent William O`Brien, a 13-year FBI veteran, fielded the calls. The office was getting too many for them to be the work of a crank, so he started checking them out. O`Brien determined that at least one county employee had indeed been at the Bartolomei cottage to repair a stairway. He also confirmed that the Bartolomeis did have a maid named Tommie Jackson and that she was being paid out of federal revenue sharing funds. One by one, the other allegations also checked out.
O`Brien shared the fruits of his investigation with R. Lawrence Steele, then U.S. attorney for Northern Indiana. Outraged at the feds` findings, Steele, a Republican, working closely with O`Brien and other FBI agents, assumed personal direction of a massive federal probe into the entrenched Democratic cabal that ran the county.
Steele, now an attorney in private practice in Merrillville, recalls the case vividly: ``Rudy Bartolomei was a power person, ruthless and arrogant. Here is a man who was the chief law enforcement officer of the county, and he had been breaking the law for years. What Bill O`Brien came up with was only the tip of the iceberg.``
In addition to availing himself of county patronage employees for personal and political ends, Bartolomei and other county officials were assessing workers 2 percent of their county wages, ostensibly for a ``flower fund`` for funerals and other occasions, in return for doling out promotions and other favors.
``In essence, the public was subsidizing their political campaign funds,`` says Steele. ``It was a tough case to put together. There were no tape recordings, and interviews had to be conducted with lots of people-people who asked for assurances that they would be protected. The county employees were being treated like serfs. They were the victims of a man who liked to play the power game of a feudal lord. I told them I knew they were afraid but that what was happening was wrong and they ought to cooperate.``
Eventually the investigation was expanded to include allegations that Bartolomei, an avid gun collector, had converted to his own use a number of weapons that his deputies and local police had confiscated on the streets. The sheriff was so proud of his collection that he couldn`t help boasting about it in a telephone chat with former Gary police officer Frank Jury. He didn`t realize that Jury was now part of the investigation, as an agent for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
During the conversation, he told the ATF agent about weapons he kept in his office safe. And it wasn`t just any safe, mind you. It was a custom-built safe that Bartolomei had in his office as a county commissioner. He took it with him to his new office when he became sheriff
In the last week of April, 1984, ATF agents armed with search warrants obtained by the federal prosecutor raided the sheriff`s office. One warrant allowed agents to seize inventory records describing contraband confiscated during police investigations. The other authorized a search of Bartolomei`s custom-made safe.
In the safe, ATF agents found more than 70 weapons, mostly handguns-some of which had been been reported stolen but had not been listed on sheriff`s records as having been recovered by authorities-valued at well over $100,000. The cache was so vast that the raiders had to borrow a gurney from the coroner`s office down the hall to wheel away the evidence, a bedsheet draped over it like a cadaver. They also found an illegal gun silencer, a cheap homemade device. Rudy would rue the day he kept it around.
The investigation ground along for 10 more months, with more than 50 employees of the sheriff`s office and other county agencies being subpoenaed to appear before a federal grand jury sitting in Hammond. Bartolomei did his best to brazen it out, insisting he had no knowledge of the purpose of the probe.
What he didn`t know he found out on March 4, 1985, with the disclosure of a grand-jury indictment charging him with misuse of tens of thousands of dollars in county funds, both in kickback schemes and in the use of county employees to perform personal services for him and his family.
Specifically, Bartolomei was charged with 15 counts of racketeering, extortion, conspiracy, mail fraud and embezzlement of federal money. His wife, Dorothy, who had become chief bookkeeper in the sheriff`s office, was indicted for conspiracy, mail fraud and embezzlement. The mail-fraud charges stemmed from use of the mails to bill Lake County for repairs done to the Bartolomeis` personal property.
All of the charges related to Bartolomei`s years as a county commissioner, from 1977 until he took the sheriff`s oath in November of 1983. Bartolomei and his wife surrendered at the Hammond federal courthouse, accompanied by veteran Gary defense lawyer Max Cohen. ``The charges against these people are politically motivated, and the government has no credible evidence to back them up,`` Cohen assured a cluster of news reporters. In reality, however, it was the end of Rudy Bartolomei, in more ways than one.
Bartolomei was a lifelong resident of the Glen Park area of Gary, where his Italian immigrant parents operated a mom-and-pop grocery and meat market at Ridge Road and Washington Avenue since 1920. They called it Fresno`s, in honor of Fresno, Calif., a place that had struck their fancy. Rudy credited his strict upbringing and the family`s adherence to Old Country values and traditions with the fact that he never smoked, drank or gambled.
Rudy was the sausagemaker in the family store, starting as a teenager while attending Lew Wallace High School. He joined the Army immediately after getting his high school diploma in 1942 and served as a combat soldier in the South Pacific, where he won the Silver Star for gallantry. He returned to Gary when the war ended in 1945 and went to work full time at the sausage grinder. About that time his friends started kidding him about his thumb being on the scale as he weighed out his sausages, jocularity that he good-naturedly endured. The young war hero had bigger things in mind.
The following year Gary political candidate Lee B. ``Barney`` Clayton recruited the popular sausagemaker as a campaign worker on the precinct level in his bid for mayor. Clayton won the election, and Bartolomei was hooked on politics.
His ability to deliver votes for Democratic candidates won him the esteem of party bigwigs, and by 1954 he had become Democratic precinct committeeman in Gary`s 6th Councilmanic District. He was elected district captain in 1961 and held both posts until the end.
In 1968 County Assessor Sam Bushemi hired the young go-getter as a temporary deputy assessor for $30 a day. Six months later, when Bushemi died, the newly appointed assessor, Michael Jankovich, made Bartolomei his chief deputy. He subsequently served as president of the county drainage board and as a member of the county plan commission and toxicology laboratory.
In 1976, in his first bid for elective office, Bartolomei was elected 3d District commissioner, succeeding Martin Behnke, who did not seek re-election. He thus became the newest of the county`s three commissioners, endowed with authority to award millions of dollars in contracts for goods and services needed by the Lake County government.
Bartolomei had control of the building manager`s office of the Lake County Government Center, where he supervised certain employees. He was assisted by Dorothy Gillham, building coordinator, and his wife, Dorothy, who became his office manager. Among other things, the 15-count indictment against Bartolomei and his wife alleged that Gillham had to pay Rudy $1,100 for a pay raise.
He was re-elected in 1980 and held the position of commissioner until his fellow Democratic committeemen selected him to succeed Chris Anton as sheriff in the fall of 1983.
There were several flaps during Bartolomei`s term as sheriff, mainly over his hiring practices. Five Lake County Jail correctional officers were asked to resign in October of 1984 after a federal court monitor disclosed that two of the five had criminal records. It was also disclosed that Bartolomei`s son-in-law, William Henderson, and two others-both sons of prominent old-guard political cronies of the sheriff-were graded as the top scorers in oral and written examinations for jobs in the sheriff`s department.
It was never determined if the scores were rigged, but Bartolomei`s successor, Sheriff Stephen Stiglich, had seen enough. True to a pledge to make reforms, Stiglich turned over all job testing to an outside firm of professional law-enforcement consultants and instituted a program of psychological and lie-detector testing for all applicants.
Rudy, however, just laughed off any criticism of the way he ran the department.
His 1985 indictment over irregularities during his tenure as county commissioner, however, was a stunning comedown for the once high-flying political powerhouse. And the ink on the first indictment was hardly dry when another grand jury handed down a new indictment on March 21, charging he kept an illegal silencer for a .38-caliber handgun.