Victim of a Prosecution

Baham “Bob” Djahanguiri asks us to believe he’s innocent. He asks us to suppose–now that the state of Illinois has spent three years combing through his records and his life, trying to prove he’s a criminal, and couldn’t–that maybe he isn’t one.

Are you willing to make such a leap of faith?

“They did lots of investigating,” Djahanguiri told us. “They did lots of talking to other people. One bartender was telling me they were asking him about me–am I a big spender? They were asking even the doorman in my home–asking him the questions.”

To whatever evidence these interrogations gleaned must be added the yield from the 100 boxes of records seized from Djahanguiri’s three restaurants–Toulouse, Yvette, and Turbot–back in February 1984. But it wasn’t enough.

“What we went through is really a sad story,” said Djahanguiri the other day. He’d led us to a table at the back of Yvette, and told us his story in a low, passionate voice. He had brought to him various legal papers and newspaper clippings that helped make his points. Also arriving was a terrific lunch.

“I work 23 years in my life double shift in restaurant business–and then this,” said Djahanguiri. “I lost four years of my life. I lost $250,000 in attorney fees. I lost 25 percent of sales at my restaurants. I lost at least four or five million dollars with deals I had negotiated with people all over the country [for new restaurants].

“I almost go out of business. Some way now I hoping to bring the momentum back.”

What happened to Bob Djahanguiri is that he fell under suspicion. “I was never charged!” he told us. “Never charged with anything.” And that is true. Nevertheless, he fell under suspicion. And word got out.

There were a couple of page-one articles in the Near North News and a 1985 Tribune story that ran under a banner headline–“Tax probe focuses on owner of downtown restaurants” on the front page of the “Chicagoland” section. Now everyone knew that his own partner, Charles Canali, had accused Djahanguiri of skimming off $1.5 million in cash receipts and underpaying his taxes. He felt “crucified.”

Last July, Djahanguiri’s lawyer got good news.

“I am writing to inform you,” wrote special assistant attorney general Frank Zera, “that on June 29, 1987 . . . the Cook County Grand Jury returned a no bill against [Djahanguiri and his restaurants]. Please be advised that the investigation by the Attorney General’s offices regarding sale tax, and personal income tax is now closed . . .”

So after three years, that was it. (The U.S. Attorney’s office, by the way, had made up its mind by mid-1984 not to bother with Canali’s accusations.) Even though their star witness was an absolute dream–the guy’s own partner!–the AG’s office couldn’t put together a case that would stick.

Naturally enough, investigative agencies don’t make a policy of announcing their probes that come up dry. Why embarrass the poor guy whose friends and neighbors never knew he was in hot water? Why embarrass the agency?

“Unless an indictment is returned we don’t alert the media,” said Mike Ficaro, today the executive director of the Office of the Attorney General and during the Djahanguiri investigation the office’s director of enforcement. “We’re not in the business of presenting news. We’re in the business of investigating.”

Besides, he said, it’s not news when somebody isn’t indicted. Ficaro has a point: the editor who slapped “Tax probe focuses on owner of downtown restaurants” into the Tribune where everyone was sure to see it probably would have positioned “Probe called off” somewhere we’d need a map to find.

But still . . . Djahanguiri is sort of a celebrity–his restaurants have national reputations. And people had read he was in big trouble. Djahanguiri would have appreciated a press release announcing he’d survived it.

So Djahanguiri started telling journalists one at a time that he’s out from under. Bill Kurtis ran a report; Jay Pridmore shoehorned it into his dining-out notes in the Tribune’s “Friday” section.

So why didn’t you do the generous thing? we asked Ficaro. You had him dangling for three years. Why not acknowledge that it’s over?

“To say it’s concluded is inappropriate,” Ficaro said cryptically.

What does that mean?

“There’s a statute of limitations involved in any criminal case,” Ficaro said, speaking in pointed generalities. In a tax case such as Djahanguiri’s, it’s three years. “But in civil cases there’s a different limitation [five years] and a different burden of proof,” Ficaro said. “I’m not going to indict anybody I can’t prove guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But in civil cases I just need to prove a preponderance of the evidence.”

In fact, Illinois isn’t done with Djahanguiri just yet. Now that the criminal investigation is over, the Department of Revenue has sent its own auditors in. And they’ve gone over everything. But David Ward, who’s Djahanguiri’s tax attorney, told us he doesn’t think they found anything either.

Ficaro could not discuss the evidence against Bob Djahanguiri. But he did suggest we hear what Charles Canali–Djahanguiri’s former partner, the man who got him into trouble–had to say.

When Yvette and Turbot were opened in the early 80s, Canali, a Naperville contractor, held a large minority interest. In 1983 he filed suit against Djahanguiri in federal court, accusing Djahanguiri of cooking the books and asking for a court order to make Djahanguiri give up the restaurants.

“Tell Ficaro to return my phone calls!” Canali yelled at us over the phone. “He refuses to call me! Because he knows the Iranian’s as guilty as hell! He’s the most disgusting son of a bitch I’ve ever met in my life and they all let him slide. Ask Ficaro why he won’t return my calls! He’s got proof! I couldn’t believe it! When I met the guy he was a waiter at Arnie’s–he didn’t have ten cents to his name. Within four months he had $80,000. Where’d he get it?”

We asked Canali what happened to his civil suit.

“I just settled and I got out. I sold my interest and I got my money back I put in. It’s the biggest fucking waste of time of my life–Turbot, Yvette. The guy’s penniless and I make him a millionaire and where does it get me?”

OK, we told Ficaro, now we’ve talked to Canali. Interesting guy.

“As far as I’m concerned he’s not much better,” Ficaro said.

We got the feeling Ficaro sized us up as being naive about these matters, as holding to the simple idea that either someone is under suspicion or he is not, he is being investigated or he is not, his name has been cleared or it has not.

“Your presumption is that everything is black and white,” Ficaro told us. “And it is not.”

Prosecutors are different from the rest of us. We’re expected to be high-minded and presume someone’s innocent until it’s proved he isn’t. But prosecutors have a job to do. And in order to do it, they have to presume people are guilty.

And once guilt is presumed, isn’t it being human to go right on presuming it even when an investigation doesn’t pan out? Prosecutors know only too well the big difference between a lack of evidence and a lack of guilt.

“Am I a sore loser?” said Ficaro, when we asked him. “No. You can’t be in this business and think of it as winning or losing. You’re performing your responsibilities.”

So here we have Bob Djahanguiri attempting to get back to speed despite the shadow draped across his life. And here is Mike Ficaro, apparently indifferent to whether Djahanguiri ever manages to remove it.

Altered Statesmanship

Has anyone pointed out that both Nancy Reagan and Douglas Ginsburg are products of Chicago’s Latin School? The next issue of the school’s Alumni Bulletin might make interesting reading.

Ginsburg’s nomination struck us as old-fashioned Republicanism. He had a record as something of a libertarian when it came to business. Who the hell knew what he really thought about abortion or prayer in school and who cared? By the time the right wing figured Ginsburg out, some other guy would be president.

But in the end it was our friends on the right who taught us all an important lesson: scrubbing a Supreme Court nominee because he doesn’t recognize a constitutional right to privacy is a shameless incursion on presidential authority; scrubbing a Supreme Court nominee because he smoked a joint back at Harvard is tough-minded statesmanship.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.