No­to­ri­ous mob­ster dies, had cameo in ‘Casino’

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY MADE­LINE KEN­NEY, STAFF RE­PORTER mken­ney@sun­times.com | @MadKen­ney

Frank Cullotta, a no­to­ri­ous Chicago mob­ster-turned-govern­ment wit­ness who later cap­i­tal­ized off his crim­i­nal past by giv­ing tours in Las Ve­gas, died early Thurs­day morn­ing of COVID-19 com­pli­ca­tions in a Ne­vada hospi­tal, the Mob Mu­seum said in a blog post last week. He was 81.

Cullotta, a mob as­so­ciate from the mid1950s un­til 1982, ad­mit­ted to com­mit­ting more than 300 bur­glar­ies, 200 thefts, 25 ar­son and two mur­ders, the Sun-Times pre­vi­ously re­ported.

He later be­came a govern­ment in­for­mant and helped in the pros­e­cu­tion of mob­sters in Chicago and Las Ve­gas. Specif­i­cally, he iden­ti­fied the top bosses of the Chicago mob, the Sun-Times re­ported at the time.

It’s hard to say what ex­actly drew Cullotta to his life of crime, though some en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors might have in­flu­enced him.

Born in 1938, Cullotta grew up in “The Patch” on Chicago’s Near West Side, which was full of mob­sters. His fa­ther, Joe Cullotta, was a crim­i­nal who died in a po­lice chase in the 1940s, the Sun-Times pre­vi­ously re­ported.

Cullotta wasn’t par­tic­u­larly en­am­ored with school and he wasn’t re­ally skilled in sports, said Ge­off Schu­macher, who got to know the for­mer mob­ster in his later life as the vice pres­i­dent of ex­hibits and pro­grams for the Mob Mu­seum in Las Ve­gas.

But steal­ing came nat­u­ral to Cullotta. “Frank usu­ally de­scribed him­self as a thief or he liked to steal, and a lot of times when you talk about mob­sters, you don’t think of them just as one kind of crim­i­nal, they’re in­volved in all kinds of stuff,” Schu­macher told the Sun-Times on Sun­day. “But Frank’s spe­cialty be­came steal­ing.”

Cullotta joined his boy­hood friend and Las Ve­gas mob boss An­thony “Tony the Ant” Spi­lotro in Las Ve­gas in 1979. There, he be­came the leader of the in­fa­mous bur­glary ring known as the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” which en­tered homes and busi­nesses by drilling gi­ant holes in walls and roofs.

But af­ter a botched rob­bery in 1982, the FBI told Cullotta that Spi­lotro had or­dered a hit on him, the Sun-Times pre­vi­ously re­ported. Cullotta en­tered wit­ness pro­tec­tion and be­came a govern­ment wit­ness.

His for­mer FBI han­dler Den­nis Arnoldy re­cently told the Las Ve­gas Re­view Jour­nal that Cullotta was “the sin­gle most im­por­tant wit­ness in the breakup of Spi­lotro’s crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion.”

“He had the in­side in­for­ma­tion and how it all was hap­pen­ing,” Arnoldy added.

In a 2007 Sun-Times ar­ti­cle, Cullotta said he was a changed man.

“I prob­a­bly couldn’t kill a fly now, re­ally,” said Cullotta, a then-68-year-old grand­fa­ther.

Schu­macher said Cullotta “ex­pressed re­gret” for his crim­i­nal past.

“He did not see him­self as a so­ciopath or some­one who en­joyed killing peo­ple, that’s for sure,” Schu­macher said. “He felt like in the two cases at least that he was in­volved in that he was fol­low­ing or­ders. He looks at it like be­ing a sol­dier in war and his bosses or­dered this to be done and so you do what the boss tells you to do. I don’t think he took any plea­sure in it.”

In his later life, Cullotta, who al­ways main­tained his dis­tinctly thick Chicago ac­cent, Schu­macher said, lived in an undis­closed lo­ca­tion, with a dif­fer­ent iden­tity. He had a cameo role as a hit man in the 1995 mob film “Casino.” He also made a liv­ing telling mob sto­ries, while point­ing out places where key events in Las Ve­gas oc­curred.

“It was al­ways im­por­tant to re­mem­ber when as­sess­ing Frank Cullotta that in fact . . . he was a very no­to­ri­ous crim­i­nal and com­mit­ted mur­ders, which are un­for­giv­able,” Schu­macher said. “But in his later life, he be­came a very ef­fec­tive pub­lic speaker and sto­ry­teller. He had great mem­ory re­call of the de­tails of events he was in­volved in, and so he was very au­then­tic . . . and peo­ple loved it.”

As the pan­demic burns through Chicago’s mu­nic­i­pal fi­nances, the rev­e­la­tion that the city’s TIF cof­fers con­tained $1.79 bil­lion at the end of 2019 — a whop­ping $855 mil­lion more than City Hall pro­jected — might seem like a pot of gold.

In re­al­ity, it’s not a wind­fall — but it’s not in­signif­i­cant, ei­ther.

Be­tween now and Oc­to­ber, the city will square up its tax-in­cre­ment fi­nanc­ing ac­counts and find out ex­actly how much is avail­able to be spent out of them this year af­ter ex­penses and fu­ture com­mit­ments are taken into con­sid­er­a­tion.

By law, City Hall then has two op­tions: It can re­turn the left­over money to lo­cal tax­ing bod­ies, in­clud­ing the city, Chicago Pub­lic Schools and Cook County govern­ment. Un­der this sce­nario, the city’s share would be only 25% of that amount.

Here’s the other op­tion: Be­fore giv­ing some money back to lo­cal tax­ing bod­ies, the city can re­as­sign dol­lars from richer TIFs into lesser-funded TIF neigh­bor­hoods on the South and West sides — many of which were starv­ing for rede­vel­op­ment even be­fore the pan­demic.

Our take: Mayor Lori Light­foot’s ad­min­is­tra­tion would be wise to sharpen its pen­cils and trans­fer as much of the money as pos­si­ble to where it’s needed most.

The in­sider’s game

There are 140 TIF dis­tricts across Chicago, each with a 23-year life. Dur­ing that time span, all rev­enue from prop­erty tax in­creases within a dis­trict is kept within the dis­trict’s boundaries and used for a va­ri­ety of pub­lic or pri­vate rede­vel­op­ment projects.

But be­fore putting a dol­lar of TIF money to work else­where, city of­fi­cials must de­ter­mine if any of that $1.79 bil­lion has to be used to keep ex­ist­ing TIF projects on track. Or whether the amount fully takes into ac­count al­ready-com­mit­ted TIF projects that will un­fold in the fu­ture. The money might also have to be used to re­pay TIF bonds is­sued to fund in­fra­struc­ture in ex­ist­ing rede­vel­op­ment plans.

So the ac­tual amount of money that can be spent out of the TIF sur­plus won’t be known un­til city of­fi­cials fig­ure out what por­tion of the funds al­ready is spo­ken for.

Dur­ing this process, of­fi­cials fac­tor in project costs that have var­ied over time and also chang­ing eco­nomic con­di­tions.

“This is some­what of an in­sider’s game,” said Lau­rence Msall, pres­i­dent of the Civic Fed­er­a­tion, a bud­get watch­dog group. “Al­though they pro­vide de­tailed in­for­ma­tion about the funds, un­less you’re in­side City Hall, you don’t re­ally know what projects are mov­ing for­ward.”

And so TIF, while well-in­ten­tioned, re­mains an easy tar­get for crit­i­cism. It was orig­i­nally in­tended to re­store “blighted” neigh­bor­hoods. It’s since be­come a fund­ing mech­a­nism for projects of all kinds across Chicago and the rest of Illi­nois.

‘Hop­scotch­ing’ and ‘port­ing’

In Chicago, TIF dis­tricts in wealth­ier neigh­bor­hoods and com­mer­cial ar­eas gen­er­ate tons of tax rev­enue that, in turn, gets poured back into the dis­tricts to spur even more devel­op­ment.

On the North Side, the 168-acre Lin­coln Yards TIF could gen­er­ate enough cash over the next 23 years to kick in $1.3 bil­lion to build bridges over the Chicago River, a new Me­tra sta­tion and ex­tend­ing The 606 lin­ear park east.

Mean­while, the 397-acre Madi­son/Austin TIF on the Far West Side, for in­stance, is es­ti­mated to gen­er­ate just $21 mil­lion over its 23-year life, which ex­pires in 2023.

Rather than let so much cash nest in bet­ter-off TIF dis­tricts, city bud­get and plan­ning of­fi­cials can use “port­ing” to shift funds from richer dis­tricts to ad­ja­cent poorer ones. The city likely will in­ves­ti­gate port­ing be­tween some dis­tricts as it seeks to bal­ances its TIF books over the next few months.

One for­mer city fi­nance ex­pert sug­gested to us that city of­fi­cials should in­ves­ti­gate “hop­scotch­ing” TIF funds from flush dis­tricts to poorer dis­tricts miles away by port­ing money across sev­eral con­nected dis­tricts.

For in­stance, if there were a siz­able sur­plus in the La Salle Cen­tral TIF down­town, the money could be sent al­most 10 miles south to the dis­in­vested Washington Park neigh­bor­hood by mov­ing the funds though six con­tigu­ous tax in­cre­ment fi­nanc­ing dis­tricts be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties.

“Th­ese are the things that should be on the ta­ble,” the ex­pert told us. “[To have a sur­plus] means the money is gen­er­ated, but it’s not get­ting put in­side the right ar­eas that need it. This is what they should be us­ing it for.”

When the city’s true TIF sur­plus is cal­cu­lated some­time in the fall, here’s hop­ing that as much of the money as pos­si­ble re­mains in the TIF pro­gram and gets trans­ferred, Robin Hood-style.

TIF is one of the few games in town to en­cour­age new in­vest­ment in parts of Chicago in dire need of rede­vel­op­ment. The most re­spon­si­ble strat­egy is to spend TIF rev­enue more fairly and eq­ui­tably.

SUN-TIMES FILE

Frank Cullotta grew up in “The Patch” on Chicago’s Near West Side.

TIFs make big ticket devel­op­ment such as the planned Lin­coln Yards (above) pos­si­ble, while pro­vid­ing crit­i­cal project funds on the South and West sides.

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