Saturday, May 06, 2017

The power broker, the paper bag, the honest cabbie, and the Trumps — a true tale of corruption and ethics

Ethical Crook
Unethical Crook

Way back in 1957, a political boss named Carmine De Sapio made a grave mistake.

De Sapio was no run-of-the-mill power broker. As leader of a political machine called Tammany Hall, founded by the notorious “Boss Tweed” in the 19th Century, De Sapio controlled the Democratic Party when the Democratic Party controlled just about all the elected offices that mattered in New York State.

He had been credited, for example, with “handpicking” both the Governor of New York, a patrician heir to a railroad fortune named W. Averall Harriman, and the Mayor of New York, Robert Wagner  Jr., whose father before him had been a United States Senator.

Fear and toadyism in New York

“Time magazine put Mr. De Sapio on its cover as a national force to be feared and admired,” the New York Times recalled in his obituary. “And at fund-raising dinners, favor seekers would push past Governor Harriman and Mayor Wagner to shake hands with Mr. De Sapio, whom they viewed as the most powerful politician in the room.”

De Sapio came by his power as a would-be reformer. He took over Tammany Hall with promises to end its back room shady deals and its almost world-famous corruption. This “reform” was sometimes greeted with slightly more than a few degrees of skepticism. Tammany Hall was one hell of a huge ship to turn around. The very mention of its name conjured up visions of cigar-puffing men in smoky rooms, stuffing kicked-back cash into little tin boxes. 

It didn’t help his image that De Sapio, a sharp dresser if ever there was one, always wore a pair of dark sunglasses that somehow gave him a thuggish look. But this was not an affectation. It was an irony. De Sapio suffered from an eye condition that made him hyper-sensitive to light, even as he promised to shed light on political dealings.

A bagful of money

Now, on to that paper bag. One day in 1957, De Sapio seems to have absentmindedly left something in the back seat of the taxi that he was taking to the now-vanished Biltmore Hotel, where he had one of his several offices. 

That object was variously described  in the press as a paper bag and as an envelope. The taxi driver who discovered the object also discovered that it contained $11,200 in $100 bills. That’s quite a fat wad of cash to stuff into an envelope. So I’ll go with paper bag.

The cabbie who drove DeSapio was an honest working man. He not only turned over the paper bag to the police, complete with contents. He also identified the owner. He knew what De Sapio looked like from newspaper pictures, the driver said, and the man who left the bagful of bucks in the back seat was most certainly Carmine De Sapio. Not to mention that the alleged De Sapio got off in front of one of De Sapio’s offices.

Note well, please, that this was back in the day when men were men and a buck was still a buck. Run $11,200 through an online inflation calculator and you’ll discover that De Sapio’s 11.2 grand is more like $97,000 in 2017 money. So the dough was nothing to sneeze at, even for a guy who might have been handling buckets of it under the table. And do you know what De Sapio did?

The elegance of denial

De Sapio denied — yes, adamantly denied !— that the bagful of money was his, or that he had anything to do with it. He wouldn’t touch it, refused to take it, walked away from it, making his driver perhaps the luckiest cabbie in the history of New York. The driver was awarded the money. 

By now only God and the ghost of De Sapio know exactly how De Sapio ate the loss. Maybe it simply but tragically meant $12,500 less unreported income for him that year. Maybe the money was meant to pay off some political debt, and paying it back now had to involve finding political appointments and no-show jobs for an impressive number of creditors. Or maybe De Sapio had to hock his wife’s jewelry and empty out his bank account. 

We’ll never find out because, unlike the leaky Trump administration, De Sapio and the people around him could, when they wanted to, keep their lips zipped for eternity. (Sometimes he didn't want to. De Sapio evidently had a little side job informing for the FBI. But that's another story.)

I recall that De Sapio’s denial of the money in the taxi prompted  Murray Kempton, a columnist for the then-liberal New York Post, to comment with only a very vague soupçon of satire, that whatever else you might have thought of the Tammany leader, this incident demonstrated that “De Sapio is a real gentleman.”

And so De Sapio was. He may have been something of a crook and conniver, an extorter, and a judicial nomination peddler. But at least he was a crook with class. He would pay dearly to avoid so much as the appearance of impropriety. Hs bearing, his modesty, and his willingness to eschew greed, even when a big bagful of what was perhaps his own money was at stake, mark him with indelible stamp of noblesse oblige.

Class vs. no class

Now, compare De Sapio to Donald and the rest of the Trumps.

Do the Trumps owe you money on your investment for a project — say a gambling casino — that Donald Trump has incompetently blown? You can kiss your money goodbye. The Trump modus operandi is simply to declare bankruptcy and leave investors (or in one case, duped Trump “University” students) holding the bag — a completely empty bag whenever Trump is involved.

Foreign emoluments in violation of the Constitution of the United States? Every time a foreign diplomat stays at a Trump hotel, the Trumps pocket more bucks. He rents space out at a profit to the U.S. Government to contain the Secret Service agents who protect him. Even when he proposes a ban on visitors from Muslim countries, he exempts visitors from Muslim countries in which he owns hotels. Hey, that might be bad for his bottom line. And he has refused to divest himself of his holdings.

All other chief executives in recent history have sold their financial holdings and put their money in a blind trust. But Trump? 

He turns his holdings over to his sons, and promises not to peek. As if he didn’t know what and where the Trump properties are. As if he didn’t know that not putting the screws to a nation where he owns hotels might fatten his greasy bottom line. As if Trump’s new tax “reforms” and his mockery of a healthcare replacement program would not benefit the Trump family richly, while depriving the poor and working people in this nation of  doctors and drugs when they are sick.

It’s not just the corruption,
it’s also the unmitigated greed

The terrible truth is, Trump and his den of nepots and cronies and crazies are not merely corrupt thieves. They are hopelessly greedy thieves, unfettered by even a faint whiff of propriety. It seems that nothing keeps them from reaching with both arms deep into the thick barrel of corruption and moral sludge that is their playground, to scoop up and stuff into their bulging pockets more, and more, and still more wealth for themselves.

We have not seen the end of it, and will not see the end of it until either the Trump administration is voted out of Washington, or they bumble into a nuclear war that wipes all of us off the face of the earth.

Can you imagine someone  trying to hand Donald Trump a big bagful of money, and Trump denying that it was his?

We know we have arrived at a horrible place in history when we get nostalgic for the corruption of Tammany Hall.

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