Connecting state and local government leaders
These cities all suffered notorious municipal scandals. What have officials and voters done to tackle corruption and keep it from happening again?
H. Philip West Jr. breathed a sigh of relief in June when Providence’s 294-room Graduate Hotel decided to remove the portraits of Vincent “Buddy” Cianci from its guestrooms. The longtime mayor, who died in 2016, is an iconic character in the Rhode Island capital’s history. But as far as West is concerned, Cianci is a stain on Providence—one that he’s spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to scrub away.
It was only five years ago that Cianci—out of prison after a racketeering conspiracy conviction in 2007 and twice forced to resign from office due to felony convictions nearly two decades apart—mounted a third run for mayor. He lost, but West, former director of Common Cause Rhode Island, was still troubled to see him draw 45 percent of the vote.
“When you’ve dealt with such a brilliant scammer and fraudster, how can you convince people that they should not support him? I’m not sure you ever can,” says West, who helped write a new city ethics code and create a municipal investigatory body after Cianci’s 2001 indictment. “Ultimately you just have to say, ‘We’re going to build a structure that’s going to hold anybody who’s elected going forward accountable.’”
That’s the same pledge that voters and leaders have made in other places where civic corruption has been a chronic issue. Weary from national embarrassment and seeing history repeat itself, cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, and Chicago have responded to political scandals with charter overhauls and executive orders, empowered independent investigators to probe corruption, and challenged problematic local political traditions.
But successfully leading a wave of reform can be a tall order, with human nature and deeply entrenched political culture standing in the way. “This is about personal greed,” Tim Krebs, chair of the University of New Mexico’s political science department, says. “As long as you have human beings in government, you’re not going to be able to root [corruption] out entirely.”
Boosting oversight doesn’t always work, and for some, the jury is still out as reforms await testing. But in cities large and small, when voters and officials commit to challenging corruption and embracing transparency, they’re seeing results.
The Windy City’s tradition of “aldermanic privilege”—an unwritten rule that hands city lawmakers authority over land-use decisions in their districts—has proven to be a reliable generator of corruption scandals. When Krebs was writing his dissertation on Chicago’s aldermanic elections during the 1990s, he often came across stories of unlawful patronage tied to powerful 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke. One ghost-payrolling scandal involving his office led to 35 convictions, taking down four aldermen, Cook County’s treasurer and a state senator, as chronicled in the 1997 Chicago Magazine piece, “The Ghosts and Mr. Burke.”
“I thought years ago, he’s done. He’s done now. There’s no way he’s gonna escape this time,” says Krebs. “He’s got a long history of questionable practices.”
But Burke, an alderman for an extraordinary 50-year tenure and (until recently) chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Finance Committee, was not indicted until this January, with more charges added in May, for allegedly extorting companies in his ward and others. The longtime lawmaker and attorney is accused of shaking down the developers behind a major renovation of a former post office complex, as well as the owners of a Burger King franchise in his territory, pushing them to hire his law firm if they wanted projects to move forward.
“As you can see in reading the indictment, he was essentially calling up and muscling commissioners, line people and everything in between to get his way in order to ingratiate himself with a potential paying client for his legal business,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who was elected in April, told the Chicago Tribune.
During that announcement, Lightfoot called on Burke to resign from the council; he has refused and maintained his innocence, and even managed re-election after being indicted.
But his scandal and other recent misconduct by Chicago lawmakers, one of whom investigators flipped to help charge Burke, have brought fresh scrutiny to the issue of aldermanic prerogative. In Chicago, as in Philadelphia (which is dealing with its own ethical conflicts tied to the practice), legislators can micro-manage development and zoning changes in their districts. Chicago has dealt with related issues before. A 1997 ordinance enacted in response to ’90s-era scandals required more transparency of council members in Chicago, but didn’t bar the practice.
But with Burke’s alleged misconduct on display now, Lightfoot has moved to expunge aldermanic privilege from the city’s political culture. On her first day in office, the Democrat signed an executive order barring lawmakers from having the final say, namely veto power, in departmental decisions. She also ordered departments to report to her on how they’ve baked aldermanic prerogative into their decision-making in the past, and explain how they’ll remove it going forward.
Lightfoot also proposed a slew of other reforms, like allowing Chicago’s inspector general to audit City Council committees, banning certain types of outside work for aldermen and boosting fines for ethics violations, among others. The council enacted those changes unanimously in late July.
Chicago’s ethics board had pushed for even more extensive reforms from Lightfoot, like steeper fine increases ($20,000 for “high-level” violations) and limits on campaign contributions from outside interests. One alderman wanted a blanket ban on outside employment for himself and his colleagues, calling that the “true nexus” of graft in the city. Lightfoot didn’t bite on the latter, but said she’s open to more conversations about campaign finance reform.
John Pelissero, a political science professor at Loyola University Chicago, is still waiting to see if council members will cooperate with or resist her executive order. But the reformist climate right now is “kind of a love fest,” he said, with broad citywide support.
“If you look at the history of corruption and graft in Chicago, most of it that comes to the forefront has been associated with members of the city council,” he said. “We’ve had about 30 aldermen over the years who’ve been convicted of federal crimes.” But in 2019, there’s “at least hope with a new reform-oriented mayor. Maybe Chicago is finally about to turn the corner on a culture of corruption.”
How could a self-published children’s book sink a major city’s top elected official? That’s what many Baltimoreans asked themselves this spring. First-term Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh tendered her resignation in early May under pressure from the Baltimore City Council, Maryland’s governor, and the city’s entire state house delegation. Days earlier, FBI and IRS agents had raided Pugh’s offices, homes, and other associated entities around town; at the governor’s behest, the Maryland State Prosecutor launched its own criminal investigation, and Baltimore’s own inspector general initiated a review of Pugh administration city spending board votes.
The Baltimore Sun revealed Pugh had made nearly $800,000 selling copies of her series of “Healthy Holly” books, which touted healthy eating and exercise. Boxes of books were sold to businesses and organizations doing business with the city, as well as the University of Maryland Medical System, on whose board she had served for 18 years as an unsalaried member. Pugh at one point labeled the growing tide of reporting on her business dealings a “witch hunt,” but The Sun and others exposed she had helped approve city contracts for health insurers and other entities that purchased her books.
The scandal drew more unwanted national attention to a city whose list of troubles includes another ex-mayor’s recent misconduct. In 2010, Mayor Sheila Dixon resigned about a month after being convicted of embezzlement for stealing gift cards intended for low-income residents. The case centered in part on her acceptance of lavish gifts from her former developer boyfriend, and her failure to report them on financial disclosures.
With two of the last three mayors resigning amid legal woes, city council members are now re-evaluating aspects of Baltimore’s strong-mayor system. Case in point: At the time they were being investigated for their respective misconduct, both Pugh and Dixon were unimpeachable under city law.
Recently introduced legislation, if passed by the full council, would change that, putting it up to voters in 2020 whether to let city lawmakers impeach a sitting mayor. Other proposed referenda would chip away at mayoral authority by giving lawmakers more control in setting the budget, letting them more easily override mayoral vetoes, and enabling them to appoint a dedicated city administrator to assume some mayoral duties. The council also recently passed legislation to heighten financial disclosure requirements for officials, and is mulling a bill that would strengthen whistleblower protections.
“Power is tempting, and a lot of power is a lot of temptation,” says City Councilman Bill Henry, who’s been pushing to weaken the mayor’s role. “It would be better and safer for all of us here in Baltimore to spread that power out a little bit, have more of it concentrated in the council.”
Motor City voters undertook their own ethical overhaul in 2011. Two-term Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick had just been indicted in a racketeering conspiracy case for fostering a pay-to-play system in City Hall, becoming the latest in a line of city mayors who became embroiled in graft scandals.
Prosecutors showed Kilpatrick had extorted vendors, took bribes and rigged bids, including by awarding $127 million in deals to his friend and construction contractor Bobby Ferguson. Kilpatrick was sentenced to 28 years, and is now serving time in a minimum-security federal prison in New Jersey.
Under a sweeping charter revision passed a year after his indictment, voters established an inspector general’s office to probe unethical behavior by officials, required contractors to report political contributions from the last four years to the city and, to the chagrin of some council members, reorganized the Detroit City Council by making most of the seats district-based instead of at-large.
John Mogk, a law professor at Wayne State University, says the addition of an OIG was one of the Michigan metropolis’s most significant reforms in decades. Voters amended the charter in 1973 to add an ombudsman, charged with investigating bureaucratic inefficiencies and complaints against government officials, but he said that proved to be a dud for preventing corruption. While Kilpatrick was holding court and taking bribes as mayor, “I don’t know anything that the ombudsman did.”
Having an OIG with greater investigatory powers adds a new degree of accountability, he says—and it’s now being put to the test. Mayor Mike Duggan is under state and city investigations for his involvement in a nonprofit operated by his rumored mistress. He’s accused of steering $358,000 in federal grants to the organization and ordering a city-led fundraising effort to help support it. Duggan has denied directing any funds toward the organization.
Some observers already have concerns about a potential conflict of interest: Before Inspector General Ellen Ha was sworn into her post last August, she served as chief of staff for the Duggan administration’s Law Department.
“It just doesn’t pass the smell test,” former police commissioner Ricardo Moore told Deadline Detroit. “She’s supposed to be independent but at the same time there’s a certain amount of allegiance to city government, to make sure city government comes out looking good.”
Mogk said creating an inspector general’s office in the wake of Kilpatrick’s corrupt tear was the right move. “I think putting a strong provision with respect to investigating unethical and illegal activities of an elected official is about as strong as it can get.”
But this will be a key test for its effectiveness, he said—and a challenge for Ha personally, given her ties: “I think that the inspector general will have to be courageous to essentially conduct this investigation fully, in light of local politics.”
Greater Los Angeles
The Los Angeles Times found out about the devastating looting of the City of Bell, a small Los Angeles county suburb, by accident. Two reporters, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, had been looking into curiously high city employee salaries in neighboring Maywood, but reached out to Bell after Maywood laid off its city employees and outsourced administration to its suburban neighbor.
The Times “called Bell to compare some things, and then got some fishy answers,” says Doug Willmore, a city manager who was brought in to fix up Bell in the aftermath. “For Jeff Gottlieb, his BS meter went off—he was like gee, something’s fishy here. Without him doing a story on another city, who knows how long this thing would have gone on?”
What the paper and, ultimately, prosecutors, uncovered: Serving a city of some 36,000 people, Bell City Manager Robert Rizzo had seen his salary balloon from $72,000 when he was hired in 1993 to nearly $800,000 by 2010, with a combined benefits package of about $1.5 million (plus about 28 weeks of paid time off per year). The assistant city manager’s salary had grown to $564,000 under his watch. And the mayor and five council members—all part-time—were each making about $100,000 in a place where a quarter of residents were living below the poverty line. Investigators found they created sham boards and commissions that never or rarely met, serving only to inflate their salaries.
State auditors learned Rizzo had illegally raised property taxes, and business-licensing, sewage, and trash-collection fees for years to fund the pay-hiking scheme. All but one of those officials were convicted of public corruption, fraud and other charges, receiving jail time and having to repay millions in restitution to taxpayers.
Willmore, now city manager of Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, was hired in 2012 to help right Bell’s nigh-bankrupt path. The city enacted new conduct, ethics, and conflict-of-interest codes for employees, and voters approved charter revisions restricting salary bumps for councilors and barring extra pay for serving on commissions and boards. They also killed the position of assistant city manager outright.
Willmore more broadly sought cultural changes promoting accountability in government, like cross-training employees so more than one person could perform a task—and to verify others are properly handling theft-prone matters like billing. He also made Bell’s inner workings more transparent. He brought in a translator for council and budget meetings—Bell has a sizable Spanish-speaking population that “really didn’t know what was going on for language reasons,” Willmore says. And in a collaboration with the Sunlight Foundation, he started publishing municipal contracts, budget data, and more on a revamped city website.
“We really had to create our own transparency, and I think that’s a big factor in employees, council members, and residents believing in what you’re doing.”
Bell has a lot of company in Southern California, where a number of cities are scarred by ethical misdealings and mismanagement from, unfortunately, dedicated city managers.
There’s Vernon, an industrial area whose reputation inspired the fictional city of Vinci in True Detective season two, and where two recent city administrators pleaded guilty to public corruption charges, one for hiring his wife as a contractor, the other for misappropriating funds. There’s Cudahy, where a city administrator was fired after helping run a jurisdiction that federal investigators probed for widespread bribery, fixed elections, and other misconduct. In Beaumont, about 80 miles east of Los Angeles, a former city manager worked with others to embezzle nearly $43 million in public funds over two decades, nearly bankrupting the city of almost 50,000. And there are others, Willmore says.
Asked about this streak of cases in Southern California, he points to a dearth of media to cover the region’s smaller localities. “You’ve got 88 cities in L.A. County. And no matter what the president says, the press is not the enemy of the people. There is not enough press in this county to cover those cities—there’s just not enough.”
Bell’s case did lead to heightened oversight of localities statewide, he says, with California now requiring cities to change out their auditor every three years instead of continuing to use the same one for years on end. “They were asleep at the switch,” Willmore said. “They weren’t doing their jobs.”
Post-scandal audits and other recent reforms have put Bell on the financial mend after Rizzo nearly left the city bankrupt, officials told Riverside County’s Press-Enterprise in 2016, after Beaumont’s scandal broke. But it can be grueling work, then-Mayor (now Vice Mayor) Alicia Romero explained to the paper: “It’s sort of like a trauma victim in the ER. Basically, you have to stop the bleeding, then do the surgery, and then do the physical therapy.”
In Louisiana, colorful-but-unscrupulous politicians are often seen as just part of the atmosphere, like jazz and Creole cuisine. Still, the bribery-tainted reign of former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was a landmark—and potentially a turning point—in local corruption lore.
While leading the city through its recovery from Hurricane Katrina starting in 2005, Nagin was found to have taken more than $200,000 in bribes and favors for him and his family—a vacation to Hawaii, private jet travel, cell phone service and more included—from various businesses to whom he awarded over $5 million in contracts. A judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison in 2014 on 20 counts of bribery and fraud, and ordered him to pay $84,264 in restitution to the IRS.
Nagin was the first New Orleans mayor to face bribery charges, though mayoral influence over contracting has proven problematic before. Predecessor Marc Morial’s administration was tied to a scandal from a $65 million energy management deal awarded during Morial’s final term. While the mayor himself wasn’t accused of wrongdoing, several Morial associates were among more than a dozen convicted for collaborating to skim more than $1 million from the contract. Nagin’s aides had criticized that deal when he took office, saying it was also “laden with patronage for subcontractors connected to Morial,” the Times-Picayune later reported.
The Nagin case led his successor, former Mayor Mitch Landrieu, to enact an executive order changing how contracts are awarded several months into his first term—changes voters later solidified in a ballot-approved charter amendment in 2014. Most contracts must now go through a competitive bidding process scored by a selection committee, and be approved by the city’s chief administrative officer. Landrieu also appointed a chief procurement officer to oversee the process.
“There’s always going to be some favoritism,” says Edward Chervenak, a former political science professor at the University of New Orleans. “It’s all about who you know. It’s a question of just how blatant that favoritism is.” Chervenak says those orders and the ensuing charter changes that solidified them have helped to tamp down favoritism in the decade or so since. “You’re never going to eliminate corruption, but it seems to have reduced it significantly.”
The city inspector general’s office, established in 2006, was another key reform to demand more accountability from officials. Council members created the watchdog in Katrina’s wake to assure there would be a new layer of oversight while recovery dollars were pouring in. “They wanted to communicate to the federal government that things had changed,” Chevernak says. “There was a fear because of the city’s reputation of being corrupt that the federal government would hesitate to appropriate recovery money.”
Nagin, who oversaw that recovery as mayor, was indicted seven years later. Federal prosecutors credited the New Orleans OIG for helping with the probe.
Chevernak says a broader cultural change has taken place among voters, who have become “much more involved” in the wake of the historic disaster and Nagin’s ensuing scandal: “There was much more of a kind of watchdog local mentality after Katrina.”
During his first tenure as mayor of Providence, Buddy Cianci was never actually charged with public corruption crimes, though 30 others in his administration were (22 were convicted). He resigned for the first time in 1984, after pleading no contest to assault charges. Prosecutors said he’d tortured a local contractor with a lit cigarette and a fireplace log for several hours, accusing the man of sleeping with his ex-wife and extorting him to pay to settle Cianci’s financial debt in their divorce. He received a five-year suspended sentence.
But, as a posthumous 2016 reflection in Politico noted, “neither press nor public ever seemed able to look away, nor to hold anything against him for very long.” Cianci was re-elected in 1990, served for (nearly) three more terms, and earned widespread support for helping revitalize the city’s downtown waterfront.
Then came Operation Plunder Dome. Federal investigators raided City Hall, and in 2001 charged him and eight others for taking $1.5 million combined in bribes on city contracts, jobs, leases, tax breaks and more. He faced 27 charges, but was ultimately convicted of a sole count of racketeering conspiracy, enough for 64 months in jail.
The longtime mayor was out, but the city remained mired in pay-for-play-practices. His successor, David Cicilline (now a U.S. congressman), took the first stab at shifting the political culture in City Hall, appointing a commission to draft Providence’s first-ever ethics code for city employees, complete with a municipal integrity officer post with investigatory powers.
West, who served on the commission and worked closely with Cicilline on the effort, said the goal was to impose a new rule of law: “First you make the bad behavior illegal… Then, you have to create an enforcement agency that’s capable of following up on it.”
Unfortunately it wasn’t quite that easy. City Council members dragged their feet on enacting the reforms, in part due to concerns a mayor-appointed ethics investigator could be misused as a political tool against others. The position was eventually created, but with weaker powers than West envisioned. The sluggish movement was rooted in fear from council members, he says. “There was real resistance, even among people who were not heavily tarred.”
The Providence Ethics Commission didn’t actually meet until 2015, two mayoral administrations removed from Cicilline’s. West said he’s proud of the ethics code and other reforms he helped with, but is bothered that he hasn’t yet seen the commission enforce the new rules for any violations. “With a power, you can’t really know what it is until you exercise it and you find out what the resistance is. I really can’t say that they’ve got decent enforcement power until I see that they’re using it.”
Several years after Cianci went down, political reformers, observers and journalists said the city’s political culture had improved. “I do not detect any feeling any longer that you have to pay people off in City Hall to get things done,” now-retired Providence Journal political columnist M. Charles Bakst told the Brown Daily Herald in 2006.
But Providence has struggled to shed its image: There was renewed attention to the Cianci era during the 2016 season of the podcast Crimetown, plus more recent scandals like those of now-former Council President Luis Aponte and Councilman Kevin Jackson for campaign finance violations and embezzlement. (Jackson was overwhelmingly recalled by voters as a result.)
And beyond those now-banished portraits, other remnants of the Cianci era remain in Providence, West notes: Some current city bureaucrats linked to the Plunder Dome saga remain in their positions.
“It takes a long time to build good government, and sadly, a clever, corrupt official can do great damage in short time,” he says. “Until those people retire and are gone, corruption will still have its presence, its taint.”
Ethan McLeod is a senior editor for the daily news website Baltimore Fishbowl, and has also reported for DCist, Slate, Leafly, and elsewhere.