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The Rise and Fall of a Mayor: From Up and Coming to Prison-Bound

March 06, 1988|MIKE HENDRICKS | Associated Press

SYRACUSE, N.Y. — Lee Alexander was once one of the most visible mayors in America, a politician who seemed destined for bigger things.

Now he appears destined for prison.

As mayor of New York's fifth-largest city, Alexander had a penchant for beautiful women, chauffeur-driven limos and bodyguards. He was a snappy dresser with a deep tan and his hair always in place.

During his 16 years as mayor, Alexander, a Democrat, was often the spokesman for the nation's mayors. He served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and six times was elected president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors.

There was talk of a big job in Washington and speculation that he might someday run for governor. Party leaders made him their candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1974, but he lost the primary to former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark.

Now it turns out that the man who seemed so urbane and polished was actually an extortionist using his power to coerce money from people who wanted to do business with the city of Syracuse.

Contractors Had to Pay

Alexander's scheme preyed on architects, lawyers, engineers and insurance agents. They paid him up to 25% of the cost of a project--in bonds, gold coins or cash.

For example, an architect paid Alexander $125,000 for the opportunity to work on a project at the city's Hancock International Airport and another paid $25,500 for a hospital parking garage expansion. An insurance agent paid an Alexander bagman $26,200 for a fire policy. A lawyer paid an Alexander agent $2,878 to get the legal work on a downtown building project.

"A lot of people turned down the deals and nothing happened," said U.S. Atty. Frederick J. Scullin. "Alexander was astute enough to know where he could put the pressure. If someone caved in, well, he kept the pressure on. If someone rebuffed him right away, he'd back right up."

By the time Alexander left City Hall, in 1986, he was a millionaire.

Now he has to pay it all back.

Alexander pleaded guilty to violating federal racketeering laws by using his power as mayor to extort money, conspiring to obstruct the investigation and evading income taxes on his illegal profits.

Sentencing is scheduled for Thursday.

Record Sentence Possible

The federal prosecutor is recommending that Alexander get 10 years in prison and be fined $100,000. Scullin said he thinks a 10-year sentence would be longer than any yet handed to a public corruption figure in the nation.

Alexander could have faced 690 years in prison if he had been convicted on all 40 counts in the original indictment. Nine others who pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the investigation will be sentenced along with Alexander.

Alexander has agreed to return $1.2 million of his illegal gains, a settlement he says will leave him in worse financial shape than he was in 1970, when he began his mayoral career.

Attorneys turned over to prosecutors shopping bags filled with valuable bonds and coupons. Some of the money was banked overseas, in places such as the Bahamas and Panama, according to Scullin.

Alexander's undoing started when Scullin was appointed U.S. attorney for northern New York in 1982. Scullin, who grew up in Syracuse and earned his law degree from Syracuse University, said he had heard talk that Alexander was crooked.

Rumors Led to Probe

"This thing really began when I first became U.S. attorney," Scullin said. "There were rumors on the street then about Alexander being a wheeler and a dealer. If not kickbacks, then there was talk about a lot of conflicts. The rumors were pretty rampant. I decided we should look into it and put them to rest, one way or another."

At first it was slow going, but the investigators persisted.

"You keep working and working, nibbling away at it, developing whatever information you can," Scullin said. "There was a pattern of no-bid contracts and professional fees.

"We got a couple of breaks. We got lucky."

The Internal Revenue Service and the FBI joined in the investigation. A witness came forward to offer information in exchange for immunity. "That was the crack in the dam," Scullin said.

Alexander became the focus of attention of a team of prosecutors, 20 FBI agents and 20 IRS agents. What they came up with was enough evidence to persuade a grand jury to indict the mayor.

Powerful in Politics

Alexander had always seemed on the verge of becoming a political heavyweight.

In 1976, he passed up an opportunity to be an early supporter of Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign to serve instead as Upstate campaign coordinator for Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington state.

His extortion scheme was designed to increase his influence with national politicians, according to Scullin.

"He wanted to be considered a viable influence on the Democratic Party and make things happen," Scullin said. "He could get the money where other people could not."

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