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The Bigger They Come

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The recent flurry of criminal trials and convictions of public officials for a variety of offenses causes one to think of why it is that people who are elected to represent their communities in city, state and federal government appear so often before the bar of justice.

While it is true that only a relatively small portion of elected officials are criminals, still the frequency of arrests and indictments of members of the political class causes people to doubt the integrity and validity of the legislative process, and to suspect many office-holders who have not in fact committed crimes or used their offices to enrich themselves personally. This is part of a larger distrust of government by individuals who see the state as a growing and intrusive presence, rather than as a guarantor of the liberty and security of the people.

Before I was elected to the City Council for the first time in 1973, I did not know any people who had been in trouble with the law. Of course I had read in the newspapers about famous crimes and criminals, but never knew any of them personally, or from the neighborhood.

One story I have recounted before, but which made a strong impression, dealt with my reading in the World-Telegram, which my father brought home from work, that Frank Costello was the prime minister of the underworld. I knew that position was important because Winston Churchill was prime minister of Great Britain at the time.

I asked my father why, if Frank Costello was prime minister of the underworld, and if the World-Telegram knew about it and published the story, didn't the police arrest him and put him on trial, since surely it must be a crime to be prime minister of the underworld. My father was a tentmaker, not a lawyer, and he couldn't answer the question. I went to law school, in part, to find the answer to questions like the one I asked my father.

I did learn the answers, but they were unsatisfying to one whose prime motive was the pursuit of justice. In an economy where lawyers pursue the interests of the clients who are paying them, rather than any abstract concept of justice, it is not difficult to see whose interests will be attended to by the lawyer class. Those relationships underlie many lawsuits, and often influence the behavior of the litigants involved in a case.

The problem here is comparable to the one involved in Winston Churchill's defense of democracy, in which he said that it was the worst system of government that could be devised, except for all the others. If we did not have the adversarial method of determining the merits of lawsuits, what better way could be found to determine the truth of a matter when the facts are in dispute?

During my first term on the Council, 1974-77, at least a half dozen of my colleagues were indicted on a variety of criminal charges. I will not repeat their names here, out of deference to the statute of limitations, and the outcomes were that some were acquitted or the charges dropped, and the fact that one case in particular, brought by a pedophile prosecutor (although that fact was not known at time) was particularly unjust.

Politicians get in trouble for a variety of reasons. The most common situation is that they take money they are not entitled to. Whether the facts indicate bribery, extortion, or inappropriate use of influence, these are misdeeds of a financial nature. Sometimes there are grey areas and it cannot be determined with certainty whether the politician's acts are or are not criminal, but even those borderline transactions should be avoided by ethical people.

The second problem area is election fraud. Whether in the circulation of petitions, the alteration of documents, false statements of residency or income, excessive campaign contributions, unreported bundling, or other sins, politics provides many opportunities for misconduct by candidates or their supporters. Whether the candidate knew about these misdeeds, or whether he directed them, are matters for the courts to determine. But this is a growing field, and the more requirements there are that statements be attested to, the greater the possibility of prosecutions for falsehoods, intentional or not.

The third area deals with the personal lives of the candidate and his family. Politicians are people in the public eye, and there is public interest in their lives and activities. Minor sins are much more likely to come to public attention if the sinner is a bold-face name. This is particularly true if the case involves a close friend or relative of the politician. It even applies to employees of the government that the politician is involved with.

I remember that any file clerk in a city agency would be referred to as a "Koch aide" in the papers if anything wrong took place, even though Koch and the commissioners he appointed had never even heard of the fellow, much less knew that he was doing anything wrong. If, by any chance, the mayor had heard of him sometime, the employee became "key Koch aide." This has nothing to do with any one person who worked for Koch. I learned over the years that the identity of the mayors were interchangeable.

It is for reasons like these that wrongdoing in government is sometimes exaggerated. Nevertheless, there is much serious chicanery that does go on, and is never detected, or if detected is never published. So one cannot say that misconduct is overreported by the media. If the scales are out of balance, the error is on the side of underreporting or ignoring sins of omission and commission by public officials and their public relations staffs, who serve their employers just as lawyers do.