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This is about as good as it gets these days for former Cicero town president Betty Loren Maltese. She’s sitting in the visitors’ room at the federal prison in Victorville, California, devouring chicken wings from the prison vending machine and washing them down with her second Diet Coke. It’s nine o’clock in the morning. Normally at this time, she would be cleaning the front lobby and bathrooms at the men’s prison next door, but today she’s talking to a reporter who has brought lots of quarters for snacks.
As she feasts on junk food, Betty, now 58, is barely recognizable. Dressed in dark green khakis, she looks more petite than voluptuous. She’s replaced her Liz Taylor–style wig with a baseball cap. Her false eyelashes are gone, as are her trademark big glasses—she was mixing a giant bowl of oatmeal cookie dough in the prison kitchen and they fell in and broke. She wears a little bit of lip gloss bought at the prison commissary, but otherwise her face is bare. She’s lost four teeth and says she feels like a Halloween pumpkin. She’s not puffing on a cigarette. The prison doesn’t allow smoking, so she was forced to give up her two-pack-a-day habit.
Betty chews on her wings and smiles as she tells a story about her ten-year engagement to her late husband, Frank Maltese, a convicted bookmaker for the Cicero mob boss, Ernest Rocco “Rocky” Infelise. She says she suspected that Frank had been cheating on her and decided to leave him. Shortly after the breakup, she says, she got summoned to meet with Infelise, who was known for his ruthlessness. “I was scared, but I went and he couldn’t have been nicer,” Betty recalls. “He said, ‘Frank loves you very much and he’s very sorry.’ Rocky told me Frank was heartbroken and wanted a second chance. Just a friend concerned about another friend.”
Of course, some people in Cicero claim that Rocky also summoned Frank and—given what he feared might be Betty’s knowledge of the Cicero mob—gave him a choice: Marry her or kill her. Betty laughs at the suggestion. “Well, I wish he had killed me,” she says. “It would have saved me from all this.”
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Betty Loren Maltese has been in prison in California for five years and still has two more to serve for her role in an insurance scam that stole $12 million from Cicero. She calls the last year the worst of her life. Her family is in turmoil. Her benefactor, Chicago lawyer Ed Vrdolyak, who now faces criminal charges himself, has cut way back on the financial support he was giving her family. In December a judge rejected her latest appeal. She still insists she’s innocent and has an aggressive new lawyer who specializes in getting wrongful convictions overturned, but at this point the odds for her are slim.
Betty has seen her 86-year-old mother, Kitty Loren, and her ten-year-old daughter, Ashleigh, only once in the past year. Ashleigh is living with Betty’s estranged sister in a small town in Alabama. Last summer, the little girl learned through the Internet that she had been adopted and that her mother was in prison, not simply working away from home, as Betty had long told her. Citing an old newspaper story, Ashleigh told Betty, “You just used me as a pawn to stay out of jail.”
Today Kitty Loren can barely see. She lives alone in Betty’s Las Vegas house, which briefly went into foreclosure in the fall after Vrdolyak stopped paying the mortgage. “How could he do this to us now?” Betty asks of the lawyer who made millions doing legal work for Cicero and served as her political adviser. “Ed always wants me to be in need.”
But she seems to like to keep him on edge, too. “Prison is hell and I don’t think Ed could survive it,” Betty says in reference to recent federal fraud charges against Vrdolyak for his alleged role in a kickback scheme. But she doubts he’ll ever be convicted. “He’s untouchable because of his connections,” she says.
Connections to what? Betty won’t answer. She says she can’t because she worries about Ashleigh and her mother. But when she gets out, she might write a book. “I always have said the whole Cicero story will eventually come out. I just hope it’s sooner rather than later. I have to get out of here.”
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Betty Loren Maltese does have a story to tell. A girl from Louisiana without an ounce of Italian blood drops out of high school, marries a charming operator with dangerous friends, and becomes the mayor of Cicero, the onetime stomping grounds of Al Capone. Throw in “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak, the colorful ex–Chicago alderman and legendary power broker, and it’s a juicy tale.
She and Vrdolyak met through Frank Maltese, who brought them both into Cicero politics. Betty says Frank and Ed were very close. They often had lunch together and took trips to Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe that did not include wives. When Frank became ill with pancreatic cancer, Betty says, she was touched by Vrdolyak’s devotion in visiting every Sunday.
Vrdolyak was already doing legal work for the town when Betty became town president in 1993. At the time, she says, she didn’t really know him well. After Frank died, they became friends, and she says Vrdolyak became her closest adviser as town president. When Betty adopted Ashleigh, she asked him to be her daughter’s godfather. “He is a good father,” she says. “He loves his son and grandkids so much.”
Vrdolyak says he takes his role as Ashleigh’s godfather seriously and has stayed close to Betty’s family while she has been in prison. Although clearly exasperated at some of Betty’s comments, he refuses to get into a public war of words with her. “She’s under tremendous pressure,” he says. “I have great sympathy for her. Being in prison is devastating, especially when you have a young daughter.”
Some people close to Vrdolyak have questioned Betty’s mental stability. She says she suffered from the anxiety disorder agoraphobia and took medication for panic attacks for years. At one point, she says, she was hooked on prescription drugs. “After Frank died [and I became town president], I knew I had to stop,” she says. “I [still had] panic attacks, but not as bad since I knew what they were.” (Her lawyers—even those with whom she’s had a falling-out—say that though she can be demanding and unrealistic, she is not mentally impaired.)
Shortly before she reported to prison in early 2003, Vrdolyak told her to write down her expenses, and he promised to cover them. She says they totaled close to $100,000 a year, including the mortgage on her $460,000 Las Vegas home, Ashleigh’s private school tuition, and big credit-card bills she had racked up gambling before she went to prison. She says he asked only that she keep it quiet.
Each month he sent Kitty Loren a check. Despite the generous help, after a year in prison Betty was getting upset. Her appeal was moving slowly. “Every day feels like a year,” she said at the time. She talked to Ashleigh every night on the phone, but the fiction about being away at a job was becoming hard to maintain. “She says, ‘Mommy, please quit and come home,’” Betty said. “‘I need you.’”
Meantime, she says, Vrdolyak came to visit her in prison in California only once and stayed for less than half an hour. His checks were sometimes late. He continued to work in Cicero for Betty’s successor, Ramiro Gonzalez. In 2003, records showed that Vrdolyak’s law firm had billed the town close to a million dollars. “I think he is quite happy I’m here, as are some of his buddies,” Betty has said. “I was too hard to control.”
Reporters, prosecutors, and even some of her friends wondered how she kept up her family’s expensive lifestyle with no source of income. Some speculated that the money came from the outfit or that she had stolen it from Cicero. Neither perception helped as she pursued her appeal.
So in February 2004, she outed Vrdolyak on Fox News. She allowed her family to give the TV station copies of his checks. In an interview, she played a cat-and-mouse game, linking him to the insurance scam by saying she consulted with him on everything she did as town president. “[Ed] knows I’m not guilty.” She ended the interview by saying, “Some powerful people don’t like me.” Should they be worried? “They might start thinking about it,” she answered with an eyebrow arched and a firm nod.
Publicly, Vrdolyak confirmed he was supporting the family. “I do think Betty is innocent,” he said. Privately, he was disappointed. A short time later, the government subpoenaed his law firm’s billing records.
Still, he continued sending the money. Why? A friend of his has said, “He cares about Ashleigh and is loyal to Frank. That’s just the kind of guy he is—he’s loyal.”
“I won’t walk away from a friend in trouble, no matter what they say or do,” Vrdolyak says. “I know what that’s like.” As a young law student in the 1960s at the University of Chicago, Vrdolyak was accused of attempted murder. He was found not guilty, but he says a lot of people abandoned him at that time, and he has never forgotten it.
Now Vrdolyak faces fresh legal troubles. This past May, U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald announced that Vrdolyak had been indicted in a kickback scheme involving the sale of a Gold Coast building, a deal he allegedly had worked out with Stuart Levine, a political insider who has already pleaded guilty in two separate public corruption cases. Vrdolyak has pleaded not guilty. Levine is awaiting sentencing while cooperating in the ongoing investigation, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.
Today, Betty and Vrdolyak are no longer speaking. Days before the foreclosure on her house became official, he sent a check, which—along with help from friends—averted the action. She calls it “guilt money,” but she is grateful he continues to help her mother.
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