Colbert King: Unfinished business in weeding out D.C. corruption

July 27, 2012

The names alone were enough to keep readers glued to the newspaper: Roger W. “Whitetop” Simkins, Curtis “Bozo” Taylor, Albert “Real Estate” Smith, Charles “Geechie” Anderson, William “Snags” Lewis, James M. “Jim Yellow” Roberts, Abe “Jewboy Dietz” Plisco, Randolph “Catfish” Turner, Herbert “Bucklejaws” Johnson.

It’s fair to say I got my formal introduction to D.C. crime courtesy of these characters. All were convicted operators of illegal lotteries in the District, commonly called “the numbers” — except for Jim Yellow Roberts and Catfish Turner, who were drug kingpins. All of them became household names in the early ’50s, thanks to celebrated criminal trials and televised hearings of the Senate District Crime Subcommittee, which delved into crime and corruption in our nation’s capital. I recall rushing home from Francis Junior High School to catch the tail end of the hearings.

The crime figures, however, weren’t the only Washingtonians to make the spotlight. The hearings revealed that the D.C. Police Department had several dirty cops, and not those officers walking a beat.

A onetime head of the police gambling division and later commanding officer of the 12th Precinct was sentenced to up to five years in jail. A probationary detective got a sentence of up to four years. A deputy chief was officially reprimanded for accepting Christmas gifts from a known gambler. One chief was forced into retirement.

So District newcomers, the current probe into city corruption is nothing new.

True, the scope of investigations by U.S. Attorney Ronald C. Machen Jr. is unprecedented in the era of home rule. But even before Congress gave the District a measure of self-government, some in the city were stinking up the joint with their nefarious behavior.

That dark era in the ’50s should serve as a reminder that corruption is not a one-time affair. It takes hold quietly, slowly, when no one’s looking. The corrupt are always there, watching and waiting for the chance to score. They are aided and abetted by a climate of indifference.

The Post captured that climate in a 1951 editorial, “Respectable Racketeers.” Ironically, the editorial took note of a deficiency that exists to this day.

Observing that an amateur detective uncovered the large-scale gambling operations, The Post asked, “Why was it necessary for an amateur — who turned out to be more professional than the professionals — to do the work that law enforcement agencies should have been doing?”

The editorial pointed out that the little success achieved fighting corruption was “more through the work of the United States Attorney than through the work of the police.”

Isn’t that true today?

Where in the world, it must be asked, were the D.C. inspector general, the city’s Office of Campaign Finance and the D.C. Council while our city was being politically and criminally corrupted?

Are you telling me that no one in the District government had an inkling that a council member was misusing earmarks and lining his pocket, or that campaign contribution limits and spending rules were being violated with impunity?

A federal grand jury is investigating the award of the D.C. lottery contract. But ask council members and city agencies what the investigation is about — as I have — and they adopt the classic D.C. leader position: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

The Post’s 1951 editorial, referring to lottery corruption and the fact that one of those involved was operating “under a cloak of respectability and legitimate business” (why do I think of Jeffrey Thompson?), asked: “How many other[s]. . . are there in similar circumstances?”

“Every Washington newspaperman is aware of reports that higher-ups . . . are really the bosses,” The Post observed. “No newspaper,” it said, “has either the staff or the privileges to compel testimony in order to conduct an investigation.

“But from the recurrent seepages of evidence which contradict the bland assurances that there is no big crime here, it is obvious,” the editorial continued, “that no investigation of crime in Washington has yet gotten at the roots.”

That, indeed, is our unfinished business — even today.

Now, as was true in the ’50s, all the facts must be laid out. We need an exhaustive investigation that fully exposes the corrupt activities of the “respectable” figures seemingly behind the disreputable acts.

Only then can we kill corruption at its roots and stand guard against the recurrence that is sure to come.

kingc@washpost.com

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