Crook Envy

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December 10, 2008 2:56 p.m.

There’s been a lot of news to talk about over the last thirty-six hours. But the largest volume of emails has come in in response to yesterday’s note from TPM Reader WO’s suggesting a contest for most corrupt state. WO took it as a given that the top three contenders were Alaska, Illinois and Louisiana.

Au contraire, say partisans of perhaps a dozen other states — New Jersey, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and New York being top claimants.

I know there are a lot of hurt feelings out there. A lot of people feel slighted on behalf of their states. But while a number of these states have impressive histories of corruption, as I told a few emailers, a lot of it really comes down to a case of ‘what have you done for me lately?’

Let’s run through the issue. As a former proud resident of Rhode Island, there’s no doubt that the Ocean State has an extremely impressive history of corruption, with an impressive level of mafia infiltration as a bonus. But TPM Reader JR concedes that those days may be in the past …

I grew up in RI and now live in MA. I think RI would have won this hands-down 20 yrs ago, but while Lincoln Almond was a completely shitty governor, as US Atty he did a pretty good job of breaking the back of the Patriarca mob family that drove a lot of southern New England’s corruption for decades.

It’s still a huge part of RI’s self-identity, though… if they ever named a state movie (in the sense of a state bird or state flower), it would surely be “The Godfather”.

Admittedly, in my day we had Buddy Cianci for the Mayor of Providence. He was on his second life at that point, having done a stint in prison after he’d been Mayor the first time. I never did the kind of deep forensic look at what that was all about as I do these days as a reporter (I was a graduate student back then.) But all the stories seemed to come back to kidnapping the guy who slept with his wife, bonking him on the head with a log and doing some sort of low level torture. That’s was all in the past in the early and mid-1990s. Alas, a few years after I left Buddy made a return visit to the slammer. At the end of the day though, it was more a faint echo of the real glory days of Rhode Island corruption than a genuine reprise.

New Jersey? Hard to deny the Garden State some serious props (I used to live there too). Readers have mentioned Torricelli and McGreevey, etc. And if the issue is sheer saturation of machine politics and graft, it’s a real contender. But perhaps this is the issue: how do you compete with Edwin Edwards a few years ago and William Jefferson with various international shenanigans, $90,000 of frozen cash hidden in his freezer. The list just goes on and on. Or Alaska, two of the three members of the congressional delegation under criminal investigation — now one of them convicted. And the third member standing out as the clean senator because all she got was a discount vacation house from a fundraiser and political fixer. Or Illinois. Well, two straight governors indicted and then you go from there.

Sure, there’s plenty of crooks in New York and New Jersey and Rhode Island. And Massachusetts has its moment. But I’m just not sure any of them can put the kind of serious and recent per capita muck on the table as these three other worthy states. Certainly not when it comes to governors and federal officeholders.

Again, I invite your response if you think I haven’t given these states their due.

Late Update: More sour grapes, now from TPM Reader TC

I cannot believe that my home, the Garden State, is not in contention as the most corrupt state. Not with its rich tradition of seeing the mayors of its largest city sent to prison. (Three in a row! My favorite is probably Hugh Addonzio, who presided over the ’67 riots and ended in prison for, in the federal prosecutor’s words, ‘delivering the city into the hands of organized crime.”)

Not with the legendary Hudson County machine, founded by Frank “King Hanky-Panky” Hauge, who ran Jersey City from a suite in the Plaza Hotel during the depths of the Great Depression.

Not after Senator Harrison “Pete” Williams, the only US Senator to do time for dipping his beak during the Abscam affair, or after Senator Bob “the Torch” Torricelli, who left office in disgrace after news broke of his pecuniary friendship with a certain Mr. Chang — a Chinese-American ‘businessman’ who did most of his business in North Korea.

Sure, auctioning off a Senate seat is pretty heady stuff. So what does the mob-riddled state that invented ‘pay-to-play’ got to do to compete? Have its Governor resign in disgrace when it’s revealed he had his secret gay lover on the public payroll to the tune of six figures?…

Been there. Done that.

He didn’t even mention Sharpe James, not by name at least.

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