City's oldest watchdog on last legs

Crime Commission moves out, ex-pres says it's broke
January 8, 2009 12:28:54 PM PST
There is turmoil at the top of the Chicago Crime Commission, the nation's oldest organization of citizen crime fighters. Some say its terminal. After leading the fight against a Rosemont casino and a high-level role in the Operation Family Secrets mob trial, the Chicago Crime Commission last week closed its doors and moved out of its long time headquarters in the Loop. A spokesperson says they are waiting for new office space to open.

But the recently departed president says the commission was flat broke late last year and couldn't make payroll." We simply were out of money at the time that I decided I had to resign," said James Wagner, Former Crime Commission president.

A decorated former FBI agent, Wagner left the Crime Commission last October without public explanation. Now, he tells the I-Team they were teetering on collapse. "I believed it was when I resigned, I was not at all confident that they would be able to continue," said Wagner.

It was thriving 90 years ago, along with the mob. The Crime Commission received its charter and was run by civic and business leaders. Prohibition triggered a gangland war, led by notorious hoodlum Al Capone. The Crime Commission began a decades-long fight against the outfit and the public corruption that fuels it.

"I believe even more today than ever before the Crime Commission has a role in Chicago as well as other major cities, but especially in Chicago," added Wagner. "With the events of recent days and the political spectrum, it's essential for an independent organization to be able to speak on behalf of the citizens and that was what the Crime Commission was supposed to do, speak on behalf of citizens in regards to areas of crime and justice and the court system."

"To come to its demise is very sad for me," said former IRS investigator Bob Fuesel, who ran the commission 15 years ago. "For the Chicago Crime Commission, the premier commission of them all, after 90 years, to somehow close their doors is inexcusable," Fuesel told the I-Team. "It would only indicate what Chicago is like, it would only indicate that the biz community doesn't care about what goes on other than their own business, which is fine and dandy, but if they want a commission to be a watchdog they should be responsible to make sure it goes on. But with a complacent board it will go out of business."

Fuesel says he accepted a $930,000 donation from the estate of a late board member. "That money is now all gone. People came in and started with high salaries and hired people that weren't needed," said Fuesel. "For them to let that $930,000 go the way they did it is inexcusable. If they ran their businesses that way they ran the Crime Commission, their companies would be out of biz too."

"By last fall, the organization was in dire shape," said Wagner. "We didn't have what you would call a staff."

"One of the things I tried to accomplish when I started was to expand the membership, to expand the support" he said, "and I ran into a reluctance on the part of old time members who were used to the way things had always been, a very closely held membership of you're there because I know you and trust you, and I don't want anyone else here who I don't know and for that reason, membership had been dropping and at the time I had resigned."

The latest public filings show the commission spends more than it brings in.

After Wagner, business magnate J.R. Davis took over what's left as chairman, board member and president.

""He's not really qualified in the area of law enforcement; has no background in law enforcement as well as areas of criminal justice," Wagner told the I-Team.

"His company has contracts with the banks for computer services in Chicago as well as armored car service to move money for the Federal Reserve. He came in and volunteered to support financially the continuation of the Commission's activities and as a result the board voted him to be both chairman and president and gave him the authority to do whatever was necessary," said Wagner. "The idea of having both of those positions in one person is actually not possible in the by-laws but that's what they did."

"He has no law enforcement experience and he is holding three positions, being a one man office...It's just a sham operation, there is nothing going on over there," said Fuesel, a former criminal investigator for the IRS in Chicago.

In an email, Davis cited the commission's "very formidable financial position" but said it's not "in the best interest of law enforcement to outline specific financial details of the commission." (see entire statement below) But the commission has never been a law enforcement agency and as a not-for-profit organization, it is required to provide annual financial statements.

"My concern is that all power is vested in one individual and I'm not sure that's a healthy situation for any independent not for profit to operate in that fashion," said Wagner.

Meanwhile Davis has moved the Commission's legendary files to his business on the west side of Chicago. "They have the most exhaustive files anywhere of any association I know of in the U.S.," said Fuesel. "There are so many different authors and reporters who have come over and done research."

State records reveal that a former Crime Commission employee is under investigation for alleged theft of funds. The case was referred to the FBI and on Wednesday a bureau official says the matter is pending.

Despite the turmoil, a Crime Commission spokesperson contends they are not out of business and promises new innovative programs that address gang violence and public corruption as well as new members of their leadership team.

-Statement from J.R. Davis, chairman, president and board member: "As the Chicago Crime Commission celebrates its 90th anniversary, the organization enjoys a very formidable financial position. That being said, it is not in the best interest of law enforcement to outline specific financial details of the Commission. The current leadership team and staff enjoy the full support of the Chicago Crime Commission's Board of Directors. In the coming months, we look forward to initiating additional innovative programs that address gang violence and public corruption as well as introducing new members of our leadership team."