We are hoping to overcome the coronavirus. What about the corruption virus? Corruption is as old as the human race but it affects some of us more than others. Growing up in an American suburb, I had little awareness of corruption in government. We heard stories of big city political machines, Tammany Hall in New York, the Hague Machine in Jersey City and others around the country but they were something that affected other people. In high school and college history classes, the subject rarely came up except in reference to the administration of Warren Harding. I had a very old uncle from Ohio who had been a friend of Cordell Hull, FDR’s Secretary of State. This well respected uncle had a graduate degree from Harvard and spent his life as Superintendent of Schools in Paterson, NJ. He surprised me by speaking of his admiration for Warren Harding, another Ohio native, who I mostly knew about from the Teapot Dome scandal. It seems that Harding had assembled one of the most respected and highly regarded cabinets in record time. His Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall, an old friend, and his Attorney General Harry Daugherty, who had been his campaign manager, proved to be the ruination of his legacy. Fall was the first ever US cabinet member to go to prison after being convicted of accepting bribes. The Department Justice was also corrupt under Harry Daugherty and vast amounts of illegal booze were taken by bootleggers through bribery and kickbacks. Harding had two long term extra-marital affairs which also tarnished his legacy. He has typically been regarded as one of the worst presidents in US history although apart from the scandals of his two corrupt cabinet members, his actions were not notably different or worse than those of any other conservative Republican presidents. In any case twenty percent of his cabinet was proved corrupt.
In the 60’s and 70’s my experiences with corruption, with the exception of a few questionable traffic “violations” in Tennessee and Chicago, were mostly second or third hand. The Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, took a plea bargain to avoid prosecution for extortion in exchange for his resignation from office shortly before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency to avoid impeachment over illegal activities including the Watergate burglary.
At that time I worked for a large Atlanta firm established by George Heery, an architect who specialised in fast-track building and advanced construction management techniques. He established branch offices in many US cities when invited by local authorities to solve their building needs. The NYC branch where I worked was opened because Mayor Lindsey had asked him to design a series of swimming pools in predominantly black neighborhoods to provide summer relief in the stormy aftermath of the season of racially motivated assassinations. Parallel agencies were created by bypass the Byzantine bureaucracy of the Building Department. Permits were expedited and the projects were completed quickly. It took a heavy toll on the NYC budget for years to come but the pools served their communities well. Heery was also asked to do a major project in New Orleans but after looking into the situation, he balked, saying the level of corruption was so ingrained there that he wouldn’t take it on. Deeply rooted corruption can be as hard to wipe out as the coronavirus.
After that we moved to Italy. When we rented a small summer house in the village of my in-laws and there was some delay in getting the electricity hooked up, my wife, following local advice, called up there utility and said “I’m told that if I want the connection made quickly, I should offer a pair of pigeons. (Pigeons are one of the delicacies of local Umbrian cuisine) Who do I have to give the pigeons to?” The man on the phone was deeply offended and insisted on knowing who had said such a thing. “Oh just voices in the village.” The electricity was connected without further delay and no pigeons were involved. Apparently corruption is not as pervasive in Umbria as elsewhere.
Many years later we got to know some people from Ukraine who worked in Italy as house cleaners and care givers. Very nice people. We heard hair-curling stories of how in Ukraine all the most basic needs of people, jobs, apartments, health care and even medicines were available, and only available, through extensive bribery. Americans might foment coups or not, but regardless of the leader du jour, the corruption was solidly entrenched in the fabric of that society, much like New Orleans, only worse.
In the 80’s I spent a couple of years working in Saudi Arabia. Corruption there was very different than in Sicily or Ukraine in that it was a very rich country and most of its citizens, although not always its guest workers, were very well off. Still, executions and lesser punishments were meted out on the Sabbath (Friday) in a main square. The stoning of adulterers was rare. Mostly, it was Pakistani office boys found with their hands in a petty cash drawer getting their offending hands or fingers chopped off. Meanwhile the Prince who served as the Minister of Defense was celebrated as Saudi Businessman of the Year for the multimillion dollar “commissions” he received on the billions of dollars worth of weaponry he bought from the United States.
The costs of building in the Middle East in those days were about double the costs of similar buildings anywhere else. A part of this stemmed from logistical problems such as the severe heat and the long distances from the sources of materials to the building sites, but it was also due to the long chain of open hands which could stop the flow of materials along the way.
The Mafia has had a heavy hand in Sicily and its influence spread throughout Italy and beyond with time. However, it may not be fair to blame the corruption that damaged the country in the 80’s and 90’s on the influence of the traditional Mafia bosses and their extended families. Italy briefly became the world’s fifth largest economy and the second largest in Europe after Germany. It thrived through its industrial and artisanal prowess and some good luck. At a time when France and Switzerland invested heavily in nuclear energy, Italian voters vetoed nuclear facilities and were then able to buy electricity below cost after zero investment. A winning lottery ticket! Alas, as with many lottery winners, they blew the winnings. A system known as the partitocracy, also referred to by some as the kleptocracy, came into being whereby the many competing political parties all acquiesced in the division of the spoils and the retention of the status quo. More than fifty major construction projects were built throughout Italy and then abandoned when the money for their completion evaporated. The one I saw close by was the new hospital just outside Orvieto which was started in the 1970’s, sat unfinished for years until thoroughly vandalized, and then redesigned and refinanced around 1993 with construction completed by 2007. Many such projects were not so lucky and have never been completed at all.
In 1992 the Mani Pulite (clean hands) Scandal emerged in Milan. Before it was over, it was said that enough evidence had been gathered to implicate more than sixty thousand elected officials throughout Italy. Most of them escaped prosecution but many did not. The old political parties all either went extinct or changed their names.
Between globalization and corruption the Italian economy was devastated, dropping behind those of France and the UK even faster than it had surpassed them. Was globalization or its implementation another form of corruption? I suspect it was but that’s a discussion for another day. Systematic corruption has taken a toll on Italy but overall the government has tried to give the populace what it wanted and what it needed.
My home has been in Italy for forty-seven years and I believe I love my adoptive country as much or more than most native Italians, Nevertheless, I have not always been totally happy with its politicians. Still, the one time I felt truly proud of the government was when it chose to deny Bettino Craxi the possibility of returning to Italy for medical treatment with exemption from prosecution. Faced with indictment on more than forty counts of corruption, Craxi had fled to exile in Morocco, and there he died.
Craxi was corrupt but unlike many similarly prominent political figures in my nation of birth, he was not a war criminal. Will the US ever show the backbone of Italy? Where did the US go off the rails? Was it the failure to prosecute our war criminals, as we had done so effectively to German war criminals at Nuremberg, opting instead to persecute whistle blowers? Was it the insidious influence of nihilists such as Ayn Rand and Alan Greenspan on political figures? Members of Congress discovering that lobbyist perks paid better than their public salaries? The glorification of self and the down playing of community? Letting those responsible for the 2007 economic meltdown off the hook and even bailing out their corporations? Whatever the cause, the US Government has not responded to the needs and desires of the public. Various studies in some of the better universities have shown that the views of the general population have almost no effect on government policies, which instead are established by corporate lobbyists and the whims of oligarchs.
In the wake of all this, large segments of the US population became so fed up that they sought change, radical change. The slogan “Make America Great Again” aligned better with their aspirations and frustrations than the tone-deaf and presumptuous twaddle “America is already great”. They wanted the perceived rot excised and the swamp drained, much as the French had wanted at the time of their revolution. That one turned into a blood bath, with many of its leaders beheaded by the guillotines they had erected themselves. In the US the nihilistic impetus was given a different path. The sometimes inflated but generally effective federal agencies were handed over to mafia bosses, no not those of the Gambino or Gotti crime families. No Sicilian roots here. They were to loot and eviscerate the agencies they were chosen to oversee and most of them did what was asked. There may have been some Russian Mafia connections in the mix but mostly these were home grown American grifters, corporate lobbyists and other white collar criminals, appointed by a president who had established a charity to help children with cancer and then stole from its funds for his own personal expenses. He may someday be indicted for that if Americans can muster some Italian style backbone. Meanwhile he has at least been forbidden from ever again engaging in charitable organizations in the State of New York.
The Trump Cabinet, indistinguishable from a Mob convention, has been well documented by a number of writers but normally escapes the scrutiny of the major media, obsessed as they are by the tweets, the insults and other outrages that provide daily background noise to cover the criminal activities of the regime. One of the best analyses written so far is “Mapping Corruption…” by Jim Lardner. By all means, please read it here. It can be hard to even keep score but I’ve tried, with a chart. Some officials and advisors have been removed by indictment while others have been fired because they haven’t been willing to play along with the criminal enterprise. Others for insufficient obsequiousness to the Big Don, Capo dei Capi. The turnover rate has been unprecedented but there seems to be no shortage of aspiring made men. Years after the collapse of Enron there must be legions of wily, experienced and hardened fraudsters out there somewhere waiting for a second chance.
We are about to celebrate the centennial anniversary of the landslide election of Warren Harding. Twenty percent of Harding’s cabinet proved corrupt, a record at the time. Harding’s three years in office never achieved the level of scandal that we’ve grown accustomed to in any week of the present administration.
Dare we aspire to getting the level of corrupt cabinet officials down to the levels of the Harding Administration ever again? The coming days will tell.