ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Name the Prohibition era federal agent credited with bringing down Chicago mobster Al Capone. Of course, it's Eliot Ness, also known as the leader of The Untouchables. Ness is a legendary figure and yet, some politicians are debating whether a Washington building should bear his name.
Here's NPR Cheryl Corley.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Eliot Ness got his job as a Prohibition agent in 1926. And four years later, he was the special agent in charge of going after Al Capone's bootlegging operation.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE UNTOUCHABLES")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You don't care.
KEVIN COSTNER: Now he does. Come on, Capone, you want to fight? You want to fight? You and me, right here? That's it. Come on. What's the matter? You afraid to come out from behind your men? You afraid to stand up for yourself?
CORLEY: In the 1987 movie "The Untouchables," Kevin Costner portrayed Eliot Ness. Three U.S. senators, Mark Kirk and Dirk Durbin of Illinois and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, admire the tireless effort of the real Ness to get public enemy number one. That's just one of the reasons why they say the headquarters of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should bear his name. The ATS is the successor of the Prohibition unit.
Not so fast, says Chicago Alderman Ed Burke. He spearheaded a resolution approved by the Chicago City Council, telling the senators they should drop the idea and think of a more worthy agent.
EDWARD BURKE: It's my opinion that Eliot Ness is essentially a Hollywood myth.
CORLEY: But here's what is not up for debate. Al Capone terrorized Chicago with gangland-style shootings and bribed law enforcement officers and others to get his way. So, Ness selected untouchables, agents considered incorruptible and with special skills. At the same time, the Internal Revenue Service had Capone in its sights. Retired Special IRS Agent Bob Feusel met former members of the untouchables when he joined the IRS in 1958.
BOB FEUSEL: It was during that time that I got to understand the real Eliot Ness.
CORLEY: And he wasn't too impressed.
FEUSEL: According to their testimony to me, he was afraid of guns and he barely left the office.
CORLEY: Federal prosecutor Scott Leeson Sroka, a grandson of one of the untouchables, says the stories he's heard are entirely different. And he says the parallel investigations by the Prohibition unit and the IRS marked one of the first unified attacks against an organized crime syndicate. And Sroka says the untouchables were...
SCOTT LEESON SROKA: Were literally tearing apart Capone's production facilities and making him unable to conduct his business.
CORLEY: Ness was a smart guy, going after the wise guys, and he became the face of organized crime-fighting in Chicago. Nearly 30 years later, the hype of his exploits - and some invented ones - were playing out on TV.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE UNTOUCHABLES")
ROBERT STACK: (As Eliot Ness) We have 300 agents in the Chicago district and the mob still has breweries all over the city. Even run their beer trucks right through the loop. What if you have a special squad? Small, operating on its own, every man thoroughly investigated, brought in from all parts of the country, men who'll spit on Capone's grafts, just a few he can't buy.
CORLEY: "The Untouchables" starring actor Robert Stack helped spread the federal agent's fame. So why rail against Ness' name on a building in Washington? Here's Alderman Ed Burke.
BURKE: I like to have Chicago history reflected in the appropriate, truthful way.
CORLEY: There's no indication that the U.S. senators are backing off their resolution to put Ness' name on the ATF building, and a statement from the ATF calls Ness a proven and innovative leader. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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