The nondescript industrial building in Bridgeport, less than three blocks north of U.S. Cellular Field, doesn’t seem like it would be the setting for much drama.
But when the home of M. DiFoggio Plumbing & Sewer Contractors Inc. was engulfed in flames early Tuesday, it didn’t take long for seasoned Chicago political observers to recognize it as the location of an infamous incident in recent local history.
Less than two years ago, in the company offices on Shields Avenue, the firm’s owner Michael DiFoggio committed suicide with a gunshot in his mouth. At the time, he was in the middle of not only a nasty divorce but also a high-profile political corruption case.
Nicknamed “Bird,” the 58-year-old DiFoggio was the government mole who helped win convictions of former Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno — an ally of the first family of Bridgeport and Chicago, the Daleys — and ex-Ald. Ambrosio Medrano.
“He was in tax trouble with the law. His marriage was on the rocks. His former pals in his mob-connected neighborhood had labeled him a ‘rat’ for cooperating with the feds. . . . It all got to be too much for Michael DiFoggio,” my colleagues Michael Sneed and Kim Janssen wrote after his suicide in October 2013.
His wife had filed for divorce a couple of weeks before he killed himself. Things had gotten so bad that DiFoggio’s membership was not renewed at Bridgeport’s Old Neighborhood Italian American Club, which his father had founded with mob boss Angelo “The Hook” LaPietra.
In better times, in 2006, DiFoggio had bought the building at 3216-20 S. Shields for nearly $1 million, county records show. According to the company’s website, the firm has been a family business for four generations, since 1887.
The recent years had seemed especially prosperous. DiFoggio was asking $1.5 million for his 7,231-square-foot house on Normal Avenue, which featured an indoor swimming pool and a three-car garage.
Despite the pool, a Chicago Sun-Times investigation in 2010 found DiFoggio’s water and sewer bill was barely half what the city charged a neighbor with a home five times smaller than his.
The good times ended abruptly in 2012, as the feds charged DiFoggio with tax evasion for failing to pay more than $100,000 that he owed the government on income from a construction business. He allegedly took about $250,000 from the company to pay off a loan for a yacht.
Rather than clamming up and taking his punishment, like so many from his neighborhood have done in similar predicaments, DiFoggio agreed to help the government.
In a secretly recorded conversation, he gave $5,000 to Moreno to help him get a deal in Cicero. Fresh off losing his county board seat — despite being an officemate of John Daley — Moreno had been appointed to a Town of Cicero post.
The wire captured Moreno uttering a classic Chicago political saying: “I don’t want to be a hog, I just want to be a pig. Hogs get slaughtered, pigs get fat.”
DiFoggio’s cooperation also led to a third corruption conviction — a record number — of Medrano, who worked for Moreno at the county.
When DiFoggio was found dead, there was rampant speculation. But officials said he killed himself.
And Chicago fire officials said Tuesday there was “nothing nefarious” about the blaze at the plumbing company.
Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said witnesses who said they heard an explosion were mistaken.
“The building came down fast,” he said. “There wasn’t an explosion at all.”
The bricks that came down had not landed far enough to suggest there was an explosion of any sort, Langford said, adding that the cause should be determined quickly.
According to employees and public records, the building and the plumbing business are now owned by Mario DiFoggio, Michael’s brother. A woman who said she was Mario’s wife stood outside the site of the fire Tuesday afternoon and handled my request for comment in textbook Bridgeport fashion.
“We have no statement,” she said.