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Public Corruption, L.A.-Style: Where Have the Notorious Gone?

January 25, 1998|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is author of "To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams."

Throughout the first half of this century, it was the firm desire of the oligarchy who ran Los Angeles that news of local corruption and scandal be studiously ignored, or written about so obliquely that it took a decoder to decipher a story. Bad news was bad for business. Bad for growth and land speculation. Wasn't that, after all, what Los Angeles was then all about?

The self-designated "white spot" of urban America, clean of eastern-style corruption, was the image that city fathers wanted to project to Wall Street bankers and Midwest, middle-class immigrants ready to invest their savings. With remarkable resolve and astonishing success, they achieved their goal.

So much so, in fact, that when serious allegations of corruption swirl around a powerful local politician, as they are around City Councilman Richard Alatorre, people tend to react as if a rarely seen stranger is paying a visit.

New York's and Chicago's corruption scandals, on the other hand, have deeply defined those cities and become part of their folklore. In New York City, names are shorthand for scandalous eras: Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall for the mid-and-late 19th century; Mayor Jimmy Walker for the 1920s and early '30s; Frank Serpico for the late '60s, and, for the mid-'80s, (Stanley M.) Friedman and (Donald) Manes, the former the bribe-taking, contract-fixing Bronx Democratic Party chairman, the latter, the similarly guilty Queens Borough president.

Chicago's denizens are legend, too, from Al Capone and George "Bugs" Moran buying off most of the Chicago Police Department in the 1920s, through the federal corruption indictments, in the mid-'80s, of almost 250 local officials, including cops, judges, city council members and state legislators.

But L.A.'s more notorious ghosts have simply vanished. It's as if the relatively clean city government Los Angeles now enjoys emerged full-blown from some air-tight vacuum pack. Yet, the city's rigid Civil Service protections, its commission system, its powerful City Council and weak mayoral office are all a direct result of the massive, systemic corruption that brought down L.A. mayors and police chiefs from the beginning of this century straight through to 1950.

Forgetting this history is a big mistake. A blind belief in self-congratulatory civic myths can lead to smug complacency. For example, during the 1980s and right up to the moment when Rodney G. King was beaten, the Los Angeles Police Department was touted by the city's establishment as the world's best, cutting-edge police force--with disastrous results.

That's why it is worth examining the questions being raised about Alatorre's various financial dealings and his conduct while a board member of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and placing them in a historical context. Currently, almost a half-dozen law-enforcement agencies are investigating these matters. Such investigations of public officials have historical echoes.

During the early 1920s, for example, L.A. mayors, district attorneys and city councilmen took campaign money from madams, bootleggers and gamblers. The LAPD's Central Vice Squad was on the take; and a loose, organized-crime syndicate was protected by the top aide of Mayor George Cryer. It wasn't violent, big-time, high-profile, Chicago-style organized crime. But its corrupting influence was just as real.

By the mid-'20s, Jack Dragna and John Rosselli, men with eastern Mafia connections, were engaged in a sometimes bloody rivalry with the home-grown, City Hall-approved Charlie Crawford for control of bootlegging turf. They also were setting up a West Coast outpost for the mob's nationwide horse-racing wire service.

Then, in 1933, Frank Shaw was elected mayor. He quickly took public corruption to a new, higher level, instituting what the socialist journalist and political activist Reuben Borough called the "Shaw spoils system." City contracts were awarded without competitive bidding, people in city government were paid to use designated contractors, and large industries were solicited for bribes in return for the Shaw administration's sponsoring of legislation designed to drive their smaller competitors out of business. Meanwhile, Frank's brother, Joe, was selling LAPD jobs, the answer keys to exams and hard-to-get, Depression-era promotions, right out of his City Hall office.

Simultaneously, the LAPD's Central Vice Squad roamed the city, serving as the ultimate enforcer and collector of organized vice operations, with the take going all the way up the line to the central organizer, Joe Shaw.

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