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The Paper in Her Pocket/Oh, God!/The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy

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The Paper in Her Pocket

After making inquiries around town, the Institute for Latino Studies of the University of Notre Dame had some dire things to report about life in Cicero. "The allegations," observed Bordering the Mainstream, the institute's recent report on the Latino populations of Berwyn and Cicero, "point to the possibility of an extraordinary host of abuses visited upon Latino residents of Cicero. Persons described fear of voting, fear of interacting with government, fear of even being known to speak critically of the town leadership."

This is a terrible picture to paint of anybody's hometown. Cicero president Betty Loren-Maltese might have set the researchers straight, but they could never catch up to her for an interview. (There are probably a million distractions when you're under a federal indictment.) So the job of correcting the record fell to El Dia, a weekly newspaper marketed to those Latino residents.

El Dia responded in May with what it described as "a lengthy point-by-point rebuttal by our reporter Eric Muniz de la Rosa, inspired by the many errors and omissions of the study," and by giving civic organizations space in a separate article to say their piece. The Mexican American Civic Society of Cicero and the Cicero Chamber of Commerce Hispanic Association huffed that their contributions to the community had been overlooked by the institute. The Asociacion Nacional de Deseno Grafico Mexicano grumbled darkly that "it is impossible from a printer's perspective that the Mexican eagle just washed away in the printing process as they claimed." The National Civic Italian Society wondered why the study hadn't mentioned Italian-Americans.

As Loren-Maltese might have told the Institute for Latino Studies, read El Dia every week if you don't think Cicero's a wonderful town. No newspaper around has a sharper eye for the bright side. Even when Loren-Maltese and seven codefendants, most of them former town officials, were charged a year ago with racketeering, in an alleged scheme to siphon $10 million from the town's insurance fund, El Dia's spirits didn't flag. The front-page headline announced in Spanish and in English, "Loren-Maltese confident she will be exonerated." Last March, as her trial date neared, an El Dia headline proclaimed, "No evidence links Loren-Maltese to fraud." And when the trial began in late May El Dia reported that "the town of Cicero has been on hand in court to show support for Betty, whose innocence is clearer than ever."

When Loren-Maltese ran for another term as town committeeman this spring--overcoming a challenge based on evidence that she actually lives in Las Vegas--El Dia cheered her on. She's the "heart and soul of the Republican Party in Cicero," the editorial endorsement gushed, and "we want to retain her in power for many years to come.... Her detractors go to all kinds of chicaneries to remove her from power. But voters of all denominations know better. More power for Betty means a better future for the town of Cicero."

Loren-Maltese is dogged by naysayers who don't think that as she goes so goes Cicero. But there may well be a strong correlation between the future of Loren-Maltese and the future of El Dia.

My grasp of the paper's history is sketchy, but with help from a former Loren-Maltese adviser I'll try to paint it in broad strokes.

Betty Loren-Maltese is the widow of former town assessor Frank Maltese, who's remembered as a go-between for the mob and town hall. He pleaded guilty to a gambling conspiracy charge in 1992 but died before reporting to prison. His wife had been a top aide to town president Henry Klosak, and when Klosak died in late 1992 Maltese (just before dying himself) maneuvered her onto the town board and into the presidency.

She took over a brutally insular town (in the 60s blacks knew it as "the Selma of the north") finally being overwhelmed by outsiders: from 1980 to 2000, according to Bordering the Mainstream, Cicero's Latino population rose from 9 to 77 percent. It was an irresistible tide, and Loren-Maltese decided to go with the flow. Ray Hanania, a former Sun-Times City Hall reporter hired by Loren-Maltese and her political allies as a consultant in early '93, advised reaching out to the Spanish-language press. Loren-Maltese invited the publishers to drop by.

"El Dia was the runt of the litter, so to speak," remembers Hanania. "It was the smallest paper, and from the standpoint of that region they were nothing." The weekly was published by Jorge and Ana Maria Montes de Oca, whose daughter Ana Maria Montes de Oca-Rojas came in on their behalf. "She was a very pleasant person," says Hanania of meeting her. "She and I got along." She got along even better with Cicero's new president.

When Loren-Maltese decided to place Cicero's public notices in her new friend's parents' newspaper, she handed them a piece of business worth tens of thousands of dollars. "She clearly took the idea of cozying up to the Spanish community to a higher level than we were recommending," says Hanania. "El Dia looked at Cicero the same way some attorneys look at Cicero--as a cash cow."

By 1996 the town board had split into hostile camps, and Hanania had thrown in with three officeholders who'd been dumped by Loren-Maltese and were now running against her organization. (Hanania would marry one of them.) He recalls that his candidates, who would all eventually lose, were getting "really hammered" by El Dia. "Ana Maria was a friend of mine. I'd call her, and she'd say, 'Ray, what can I do?'"

If a newspaper should be judged by its ability to penetrate the halls of power and understand government inside and out, El Dia is now one of the great papers of America. Today Ana Maria Montes de Oca-Rojas is both Loren-Maltese's executive assistant and a Republican precinct captain. Her brother George (Jorge) Jr. reads water meters for the town; her brother Giovanni reads parking meters and writes tickets. The youngest brother, Christopher, was an intern last summer with the city's legal department. George Jr.'s wife Esmeralda is a secretary in the president's office, and Ana Maria Montes de Oca-Rojas's husband, Merced Rojas, is a handyman with the department of senior services.

George Jr. and Giovanni Montes de Oca are both on the El Dia masthead--George Jr. as advertising director and Giovanni as public relations director (though apparently not the sort of PR boss who gets right back to reporters). It's highly unusual, to say the least, to find newspaper executives on the payroll of the city their paper covers. I thought Ana Maria Montes de Oca-Rojas was well placed to offer some perspective on this uncommon relationship, but town spokesman David Donahue called me back instead. Donahue said he didn't see a problem. "None of those people is in a policy-making position" with the city, he said. "They're strictly rank-and-file."

Just three years ago the Montes de Ocas were publishing El Dia from the basement of their home. Today they work out of a handsome storefront on Cermak Road. That's where I sat down to interview editor in chief Ana Maria Montes de Oca. She quickly grasped the drift of my questions, announced, "This is a newspaper--we don't take any interviews," and asked me to leave.

Loren-Maltese's political opponents are much more willing to talk. "It's a cancer among legitimate Hispanic newspapers," says Cook County commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno. "El Dia is totally controlled by the town of Cicero. It's just a propaganda tool for the town." Moreno ran against Loren-Maltese for town president last year and lost, and he's ready to try again if her legal woes force her out of office in time for a special election next spring. He'd presumably run against the interim president appointed by the town board.

Moreno claims El Dia ignores his press releases and has been as brutal to him in print as it's been gallant to Loren-Maltese. Late last year he filed a Freedom of Information request in order to gauge the size of the money stream flowing to the Montes de Ocas' paper and children. The figures he got back from the city showed that in 2001 the newspaper received nearly $130,000 in advertising revenues from Cicero, Ana Maria Montes de Oca-Rojas earned more than $68,000, George Jr. and Giovanni about $29,000 each, George Jr.'s wife Esmeralda nearly $35,000, and Christopher $1,487 for his internship. No 2001 salary was listed for Ana Maria's husband, Merced Rojas, but in 2000 he'd been paid $30,000.

That's nearly $300,000, and the money could dry up overnight if Loren-Maltese loses her job. Though maybe it wouldn't. Ana Maria Montes de Oca-Rojas holds the same job with Loren-Maltese that Loren-Maltese held with the previous town president, Henry Klosak.

Eric Muniz is the reporter who wrote El Dia's rebuttal to the Notre Dame study on Latinos in Cicero. "My assignment was to find any mistakes done in the report," he tells me. He thinks the plan to discredit the study was concocted in the town hall, and he ridicules some of the civic organizations rounded up to discredit it. "I do not know the Italian Civic Society Club or whatever. There is no such thing."

I asked David Donahue what he could tell me about the National Civic Italian Society. "That's the first time I heard that one," he replied.

Muniz resigned in May. "I came here from Mexico escaping corruption," he says. "I didn't want to be a part of it."

Oh, God!

A.E. Eyre had been scrutinizing press reports of the sensational legal decision in the Ninth Circuit. "The suit objected to the object of the preposition," he mused. "I was always more bothered by the preposition itself."

By the "under" in "under God"?

"Exactly. It's much easier to picture America alongside. As in 'God is my copilot.' Or even well out front. As JFK tactfully put it in his inaugural, 'God's work must truly be our own.' The new president had noticed that the millennia were beginning to tell on the Almighty, who didn't have half the get-up-and-go he used to."

In my view it had been a silly suit, a silly decision by the Ninth Circuit judges, and a silly reaction by the Senate, which immediately voted 99-0 for God. I agreed with the New York Times.

"You're pathetic," said Eyre. "The position of the Times was that it doesn't matter if we swear an oath to God because everyone understands it's empty rhetoric. Well, everyone doesn't understand that."

I supposed God might not.

"God's probably under no illusions," he sighed. "My point is that it's not empty rhetoric to all those constituents the Senate voted 99-0 to appease. Besides, empty rhetoric doesn't survive unless it's useful."

Eyre fell dramatically silent, and I waited.

"I testified in court once," he began. "It was one of those life-in-the-big-city moments. I was driving along Elston Avenue when the car ahead hit a pothole, and the trunk popped open and a body bounced out. The driver stopped and came around to pick up the body and put it back in the trunk--and that's when a sudden gust blew away his fedora and I recognized the face of some capo di tutti capos I'd seen in all the papers that morning. So I mentioned it at dinner, and then I was subpoenaed. The day before I testified, the head of a dead horse appeared on my futon."

Which must have penetrated even your legendary sangfroid, I said.

"It focused me," he allowed. "But as I was being sworn in, promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth 'so help me God,' I suddenly felt lighter than air. The truth wasn't up to me--it was up to God! And when it turned out that God decided to be no help at all and I couldn't recall a thing, I felt perfectly fine. It had been his call."

This happened?

"It might have," he said. "I can't remember. But let me add one thing. Others jumped on Ken Lay when Enron collapsed, but my heart went out to him, just as it's gone out to the gallant men of WorldCom who managed to lose track of $3.8 billion in expenses." He reached into his wallet and withdrew a $1 bill. "Here is the medium of exchange of every American capitalist," he said. "And here is that capitalist's watchword." He turned the bill over and pointed to the legend on the back.

"In God We Trust," he read. "When a man puts his trust in God and does a deal, how can we blame the man when things don't work out?"

I asked Eyre if he thought he'd located the all-American loophole.

He shrugged. "I'm simply saying the higher the power the higher the responsibility."

The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy

One October night in 1969 Sun-Times reporter Tom Fitzpatrick started running with a mob of Weathermen as they stormed south from Lincoln Park toward the Loop, smashing the windows of cars in the name of justice. Fitzpatrick ran all the way to his city room, where on deadline he pounded out an account of the nihilism that won him a Pulitzer Prize and a column. Not a pontificator, not an ax grinder, not a fraud, he crossed Chicago as he pleased, came into the office every evening, opened his notebook, and stared at it until the right words and story line became visible in his scratches.

Fitzpatrick, who died last week at the age of 75 in Phoenix, where he'd lived and worked for years, was the sort of journalist who makes you glad you're one yourself. His old paper recently hung a banner from the top of its building. Just under the giant letters that spell out "Chicago Sun-Times" and even wider than that name, the banner touted a casino in Gary, Indiana. Half of the banner was a garish "7-7-7," and half said "TRUMP Casino-Hotel--20 Minutes From Downtown Chicago!" A phone number was given.

For some reason, the owners of the Sun-Times were allowing their home to become a billboard promoting a shabby sideline of the developer who intends to raze the paper's building, put a high-rise there, and make everyone a little richer. Fitzpatrick had his demons: he could be brooding, hotheaded, and self-destructive. The wonderful thing about vulgarity and greed at the highest levels is how endearing they make other flaws seem by comparison.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/David Heatley.

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