The Amnesiac Alligators of New York

By Sydney H. Schanberg

New York Newsday, April 4, 1986

When one member of the growing club of indictees in New York City’s present corruption boom was arrested the other day, his attorney made a valiant effort at earning his fee by proclaiming  that his client “has done nothing contrary to the ethics of the municipal marketplace.” Which is to say, sadly, that the municipal marketplace has become a very mucky place where alligators slither.

Some of the alligators and their political relatives are telling us, as did the above defense attorney, that there’s nothing new in any of this, nothing in the prevailing rules of doing business with the city that wasn’t known to the mayor, to the members of the Board of Estimate, the city commissioners, to the people who award city contracts and franchises and leases, to the city’s planners and to the city’s investigators and district attorneys. And so the frantic message from those now facing public displeasure and possible indictment for bathing so liberally in the public trough is: We’ve been doing this for years and no one complained. What’s all the fuss about now?

They have a point, these influence-peddlers. Major citywide scandals like this one erupt only at long intervals — and often by happenstance (in this case, a federal informer in a Chicago scam led the trail here). And in between, no one pokes much at the ooze. So it thickens as the watchdog agencies and institutions, including the press, are generally lulled into acceptance of the “ethics of the municipal marketplace.”

And, yes, nearly everyone in this network of sleaze and “honest graft” — elected officials, party leaders, real estate developers and bankers and other big campaign contributors, politically connected lawyers, public relations operatives in the employ of contract seekers, and so on — knew how business was being conducted on the inside of city government. And few said or did anything to jar the low state of customs and mores. Those who did express discomfort or even outrage were dismissed as soreheads or flakes or worse.

But to say that gutter ethics have been embraced as the norm in New York is no argument against making a fuss now and trying to write a better set of rules. It is also no argument against sending to jail those guilty of actual lawbreaking — although one of the most telling truths of this deepening scandal is that most of the self-enriching activities we will come to learn about are not illegal, given the existing loophole-rich statues.

One of the rituals that is practiced as legal is the overnight loss of memory.

High elected city officials have suddenly taken to giving public seminars on why, to remove the suspicion of favoritism in contract awards, campaign contributions should be drastically limited — having apparently suffered a complete inability to recall that only last year they were out of breath from running after big businessmen and other favor-seekers for fat campaign donations.

These same officials, who until now wallowed in the patronage system, are also calling for major reforms in the way government jobs are filled.

The members of the Board of Estimate, the alligators who are the central sources of city largesse and who entertained at their rubber-stamp meetings many of the players facing indictment now, are these days behaving primly as if they were absent from school on the days when the dirty deals were voted.

And the Board of Ethics, pretending to forget that over the years it has given a clean bill of health to behavior that smelled of spoiling fish, has abruptly put on the costume and adopted the jargon of a good-government agency.

Perhaps the most monumental case of amnesia is that of the mayor.

For example, he approved key projects and contracts that are at present under investigation or already figure in indictments; now he is engaged in canceling those contracts as though the approvals had come from some mystery stand-in.

Another insurance: when State Sen. Franz Leichter (D- Manhattan) produced a report in November showing that millions in campaign dollars had flowed to Board of Estimate members from developers and contractors seeking board approval of their projects, the mayor called it “an obscenity” to suggest that he or others might be influenced by these gifts. But now he is promoting the kind of contributions ceilings that Leichter called for — ceilings that somehow failed to capture the mayor’s interest when he was raising $7 million for his re-election coffers last year.

In short, the spectacle in the upper suits of city power these days is one of the grown men who, at the instant of inhaling the stench of scandal, lose their capacity to recall the past. It is as if all their previous deeds have been shredded and burned.

Our eyes blur from the wind generated by their frenetic search for integrity as they spin away from possible taint. They are dropping old friends and making new ones at the speed of sound.

We had all thought they were the creators and protectors of the old rules of the game, the game of trafficking in connections. But, no, they are writing a symphony of fresh, shiny rules; the sound of many harps will soothe us and make us forget.

Hallelujah. Let us greet the new age.

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