An undated image of William Marcy "Boss" Tweed after a photograph by Mathew Brady. The politician, congressman, and leader of New York City's Tammany Hall lived from 1823 to 1878. (AP Photo)
It’s the latest -- but hardly the worst -- scandal in New York history. Back in 1871, Boss Tweed managed to take control of city finances. He arranged to have every contractor or merchant doing business with the city to kick back 15% of what they were getting to Tweed and his henchmen. Tweed soon was rolling in money, as millions poured in.
The latest chapter in New York corruption history allegedly involves Joel Bondy, executive director of the Office of Payroll Administration. He was chosen by the Mayor to head the Office of Payroll Administration. Charges of cost overruns and big delays have been directed against the agency, which was created to provide efficient, computerized management of city payroll operations. The New York Times say the charges filed by federal prosecutors against several Bondy associates “shines a harsh light on the administration’s outsourcing practices.”
Bondy’s associates are charged with manipulating the city into steering expensive contracts to businesses they controlled -- and of benefiting personally from these moves.
Municipal corruption goes back a long way. Offenses like bribery and conflict of interest have often been involved. And patronage, the awarding of jobs to political cronies or associates, has often led to corrupt actions.
In colonial days, some royal governors and their cronies enriched themselves by using the powers of office. Colonial merchants and rebels ignored tariff duties -- although that was considered a patriotic act in the crisis leading up to war. The European observer, Alexis de Tocqueville, said that, in the 19th century, “democratic corruption” had replaced “aristocratic corruption.”
As the Encyclopedia of American Law observes, there were “colorful scandals” in the Ulysees Grant era, including the “salary grab” act and the Whiskey Ring.
The plundering of Boss Tweed didn’t seem to teach us anything. There have been scandals in every era. As Times reporter Clyde Haberman noted: “When it comes to political corruption, New York can hold its own.”
I have seen a few scandals unravel, including the Knapp Commission investigation of police corruption in 1971; the Donald Manes affair, in which the Queens Borough President stabbed himself in the heart after revelations about corruption in city government.
In recent years there have been charges involving top officials, including former State Senate Republican leader Joseph Bruno and the State Senate Majority leader, Pedro Espada; former Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer; former Democratic State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. It seems that, as long as there are zealous prosecutors and the chance to make money or gain privileges exists, so long will there be corruption in the city.
Indeed, in the great scheme of things, corruption in the Bloomberg administration does not seem so bad. The Mayor said of the Bondy case: “Any violation of the public’s trust is categorically unacceptable and we are implementing a series of changes to reform oversight of the City Time Project.”
As the French say: “C’est la vie,” that’s life. You just can’t expect everyone to be honest. It seems to be the sad truth.