It's mostly a series of talking heads, front-page newspaper headlines and scenes of press conferences in New York City. Yet tonight's "Frontline" (Channels 28 and 15 at 9, Channel 50 at 10) is a punchy account of the latest batch of scandals to hit New York City, the still-undefeated political corruption champ of America.
"The Politics of Greed" traces the investigation and prosecution of several highly respected public officials and New York Democrat Party powers. Close pals of Mayor Ed Koch, they were caught accepting bribes, scheming for kickbacks and rigging contracts.
As an assistant U.S. attorney says on the hourlong program, "What happened was, a group of public officials and businessmen and politicians took a public agency--the Parking Violations Bureau--and they just twisted it and turned it into a vehicle for private profit."
Nothing new there. Just government corruption as usual, a cynic would say. But the twists and turns of "Greed" are pure prime-time drama. Queens Borough President Donald Manes commits suicide in his kitchen during a three-way telephone call with his wife and his psychiatrist.
His right-hand man turns state's evidence to help baby-faced reformer U.S. Atty. Rudolph Giuliani go after Stanley Friedman, "The Boss of the Bronx." In the documentary Friedman is called a "master manipulator of deals" for his ability to rake in about $1 million a year peddling his influence--a skill apparently commonly known to half the newspaper people in town.
There's plenty of slippery politicking by Koch and others, and the cynicism from media people and lawyers such as Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz (who defended Friedman) fairly oozes from the screen. Among the many telling quotes: A newspaper woman who covered the polite and jovial Manes closely for years, and who was saddened by his suicide, says, "I know members of the press corps who were in tears. He was sort of a friend, you know. . . . Maybe we're all fools. Maybe there are more bad guys out there among the guys we pal around with and cover that we should be more leery of."
There are many other questions raised: Is crime-buster Giuliani too ambitious? Too reaching in using anti-racketeering laws to prosecute Friedman et al.?
Human greed gets most of the blame for this latest round of heavyweight malfeasance, and the documentary concludes that the ultimate burden for ending it rests with the voting public, not the press or prosecutors.
That may sound too democratically idealistic, just as simple greed may be too simplistic an explanation for our long and continuing tradition of public corruption. But "Greed," produced by Edward Gray, shines as a chronicle of the kind of people who "cash in on their public office."