Perverted Justice

A recurring question which many people have asked is: Why do there appear to be so many crooks in government? Here are some thoughts on the matter:

There are criminals in the private sector, as well, but their crimes are less likely to be reported by their companies and publicized by the media.

In government, there is no single authority in control, there are independently elected legislators, judges who are selected by different constituencies, authorities, boards and commissions which most people, even those in government, have never heard of. There are thousands of local districts, dealing with schools, water supply and other areas, many of which are independently elected, with most board members serving fixed terms.

There is also strong political influence in selecting government personnel and making decisions involving contracts. Those are two primary areas of legal corruption: first is maneuvering someone you control into a government job, and second is getting your catspaw to make decisions that bring economic benefit, either for your friends, your campaign committee, or clients you are paid to represent.

Crimes punishable by law are the umbra of governmental corruption; but there is a vast penumbra of unsavory actions, based on improper influence, which are not punishable in the absence of direct payment to an individual. Many businesses believe that government decisions are fixed, and do not bother to compete for them. To an unfortunate extent, their fears are well-founded, and the playing field consequently is left to thieves.

Another reason that public-sector crimes receive more attention is that in private-sector crime one person steals from another or a corporation. In the public sector, most thieves cheat the general public. We are all the victims of their wrongdoing and therefore are more outraged than when we read of some private swindle or other misdeed.

In our October 7 article, we listed an array of sinners who held public office in the last decade. If you are not interested in this cavalcade of corruption, this is a good place for you to stop reading.

If you continue, remember that you have been warned.


We asked our readers to remind us of other public officials who had committed crimes. Several readers fingered Gloria Davis, a Bronx assemblywoman who had been in office for 22 years, rising to majority whip. She resigned in 2003 after pleading guilty to receiving a bribe of $24,000 from a contractor who wanted to secure an $880,000 deal. She was sentenced to 90 days in jail, five years probation, the payment of $20,000 in restitution and a promise never to seek public office again. In the seven years since, the public's attitude to crimes by legislators has hardened, and penalties have increased.

Other readers suggested the Brooklyn judiciary as a place to find criminals. In 2002, Justice Victor I. Barron was sentenced to prison for soliciting a $250,000 bribe to approve the settlement of a tort case. The judge's defense was that his request for the bribe was a symptom of dementia resulting from Alzheimer's disease or Pick's disease. The trial judge did not swallow that line, and sentenced Barron to 3 to 9 years, the longest prison sentence for an active New York judge. He ended up serving 23 months before he was granted work release for good behavior.

DIGRESSION: Barron's case reminds us of the "twinkie defense", said to have been offered on behalf of San Francisco Supervisor Daniel White, who had made a heroic rescue as a firefighter. White's lawyer said that he was depressed and had switched his diet from healthy food to sugary junk food, which was a symptom of his depression. White's diminished capacity clouded his reason, which his lawyers said was why he shot to death Mayor George Moscone and Councilman Harvey Milk in 1978. White served five years at Soledad State Prison. Two years after his release in 1985, he committed suicide in his car by carbon monoxide poisoning. A biopic, Milk, with Sean Penn in the title role and Josh Brolin as White, came out in 2008, 30 years after the assassinations.

To resume the local roll of shame, Brooklyn Surrogate Michael Feinberg was removed from the bench by the State Court of Appeals in 2005 for awarding about $9 million in legal fees to his good buddy, Louis Rosenthal. Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Gerald Garson was convicted of taking money to fix divorce cases in 2007. Wikipedia has a fascinating article describing the sordid details of the case, which you can click to here.

Justice Michael Garson, Gerald's first cousin, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stealing $163,000 from their elderly aunt while holding her power of attorney. He was required to resign from the bar and pay $219,000, which included interest on the money he stole from the aunt.

Justice Reynold Mason was removed from the bench in 2003 for misusing his escrow account and improperly subletting an apartment. After being disbarred, Mason became a realtor in Georgia. He was jailed for four months in 2007 by order of a New York judge for failure to support his three children. We wrote about the Mason case at the time it was current. Mrs. Mason had run her husband's 1994 campaign for the Civil Court, but after he became a Supreme Court Justice he left his pregnant wife and their two children. She spent the next nine years pursuing him in court. Read more about the sad situation here.

Another Brooklyn judge, former Assemblyman Frank Seddio, resigned from the surrogate's court bench in 2007 after coming under investigation by the Commission on Judicial Conduct. Seddio was chastised by the Daily News for allegedly violating judicial rules by making over $31,000 in campaign donations to his political allies and the Thomas Jefferson Democratic Club.

He was not, however, convicted or even indicted for a crime, nor is there evidence that he received money personally.

Seddio remains a powerful force in the Kings County Democratic Party. His name has frequently been mentioned in the press as a possible successor to Vito Lopez at Brooklyn County Leader if Lopez should for any reason vacate the post.

We have only written about the Brooklyn judges who were caught, because their crimes are on record. It would require the now classic "suspension of disbelief" to think that all the guilty parties have been found out. I recall that phrase being used skeptically by Senator Hillary Clinton in a hearing at which General David Petraeus was questioned about the situation in Iraq before the surge.

Other readers mentioned people caught in earlier waves of scandal, but we limited our list to the 21st century. The notorious Boss Tweed was a 19th century figure. Mayor "Gentleman Jim" Walker resigned in 1932 and sailed to France with his girlfriend while Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt was conducting removal proceedings dealing with Walker's unexplained income. Mayor William O'Dwyer resigned in 1950 when President Truman appointed him Ambassador to Mexico. He returned briefly to New York City in 1951 to answer questions about his relationship with gangsters. O'Dwyer resigned as Ambassador in December 1952, but remained in Mexico until 1960.