The Craft of Graft

(Eric Shansby - Eric Shansby)
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, January 4, 2009

When I heard about the corruption charges against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich -- who is accused of trying to sell a U.S. Senate seat outright and was caught on wiretaps apparently soliciting kickbacks, discussing shakedowns, extorting newspaper editors -- I was appalled. The man has absolutely no idea how to be crooked in a dignified fashion.

You probably do not understand what I mean because you were not a reporter covering the government of the city of Albany in the 1970s, as I was.

I am on the phone with a man I will call Bruno. Thirty years ago, Bruno was a sometimes secret source of mine. At the time, he was a mid-level functionary in the Albany city government, which was said to be the longest-lived institutionally corrupt Democratic machine in the United States. Bruno himself was honest, but he was an appreciative observer of the game as it was played all around him and had been played for generations before.

I told Bruno I was concerned about the terrible example Blagojevich was setting for today's aspiring young corrupt politicians.

Bruno: Yeah, he showed no subtlety whatsoever. You've got to be subtle. Plus, he is a potty mouth. It's disgraceful.

Me: Corruption needs to be gentlemanly.

Bruno: Let me give you an example. I knew someone who worked in a bank. Every year around election time, his job was to change $20 bills into $5 bills. The twenties would come over from Democratic headquarters, and there were a lot of them, and my guy would always run out of fives and have to go out to other banks to get more.

Me: And these $5 bills were for . . .

Bruno: You know what they were for.

Me: Yes, but just for the record.

Bruno: Well, a cynical reporter might conclude they were for buying votes from inner-city residents at $5 apiece, which was in fact the going rate. These bills were floating all over the place. Anyway, when somebody started asking too many questions because it was election time, one ward leader figured he had to deal with this problem. So he waited until after the election and then mailed the bills out in Thanksgiving cards. The point is, people still gave them their votes before Thanksgiving, because there was trust. Not like now.

Me: As I recall, the culture of corruption sometimes filtered down to lower levels of government. I'm remembering something with the police and parking meters.

Bruno: Yes, the police who were supposed to be collecting the dimes from parking meters were found to be stealing a lot of them. But we took care of that problem.

Me: You prosecuted the policemen?

Bruno: We removed the parking meters. After that, not a single dime was stolen. End of problem.

Me: Good government at work! Were there any specific important rules covering how to conduct city business back then?

Bruno: It wasn't written down. But the main rule was, don't write anything down.

Me: Ah.

Bruno: There were a lot of investigations. Dewey investigated. Truman investigated. Rockefeller investigated. No one ever got caught doing anything. And the Democrats kept getting voted back into office.

Me: Okay, but as I recall, there was some coercion to this. The feeling was that you had to vote Democratic or you would get a higher home assessment, or something. And, somehow, the Democrats always knew how people voted.

Bruno: Nah. People thought we knew how they voted. There were all these ugly rumors. One was that the Democrats had sandpapered down the curtains in the voting booth so if we put the booths in the right light -- and we put them where we wanted them -- it was like looking through nylon stockings. Another was that the voting machines were set so that if you voted Republican, it would make a "clunk" instead of a "click," and everyone would know you had voted Republican. But those were just rumors!

Me: Who started the rumors?

Bruno: See, that's where the subtlety comes in.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at

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