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SPRING 2007  · DECEMBER 2006 · JULY-AUG 2006 · APRIL--MAY 2006 · FEBRUARY 2006
Hacks · Culture of Values · Deconstructing Cultu · Niger Delta · Hybrids & Hydrogen · Dag Hammarskjöld  · Sensible Priorities · Corporate Crooks · OC & Government · Preserve... Post Off · Open Letter · Corruption

Click above, for articles in this issue. 


Corruption Isn't the Exception...

An American Perspective


In the United States of America the purging of corruption ‘appears’ to come in waves, and it has been a facet of the American Republic for quite some time.  It has been a facet of living in American society, and the battle is more ‘smoke and mirrors’ than anything else. Bribery, and favors are part and parcel of the political machinery--so ingrained that it is doubtful that this society will ever rid itself of ‘doing business’ any other way.


Think of it, what is the lobbying industry if not a form of legalized bribery?  While other democracies around the world subsidize political candidates, American politicians must raise their own funds, thus opening the way for ‘backroom shenanigans’ of favors, quid pro quos that are in fact forms of bribery.


This is America; bribes, and corruption are bread and butter staples of the political system. Those are the hard facts, but let us look back, precisely one century ago when an aggressive investigative journalist opened the shutters and illuminated the corruption underneath the veneer of early twentieth century America.  President Theodore Roosevelt came to respect him, he called Steffens a muckracker-- a label that came to represent reformers in the fight for clean government.


Lincoln Steffens was that journalist, one of the first muckrackers. Steffens published his findings, naming names and detailing bribes, payoffs, etc., in a series of articles, which were later published in a book, from which we cite these passages herein published. Here is some of what he discovered:

“The first city I went to was St. Louis, a German-American city.  It was corrupt. The next was Minneapolis, a Scandinavian-American city, with a leadership of New Englanders. It was corrupt. Then came Pittsburgh with Scotch Presbyterians and they were corrupt.  The next city was Philadelphia, the purest American community of all, and the most hopeless… The foreign element as a cause of corruption is one of the hypocritical lies that saves us from the clear sight of ourselves…”  [1]

He goes on;

“After ‘The Shame of Minneapolis’, and ‘The Shamelessness of St. Louis,’ not only did citizens of these cities approve, but citizens of other cities, individuals, groups, and organizations, sent invitations, hundreds of them, “to come and show us up, we’re worse than they are.”  


“…There are exceptions both ways.  Many politicians have gone into business and done well. (Tammany ex-mayors, and nearly all the old bosses of Philadelphia are prominent financiers in their cities), and businessmen have gone into politics and done well… The politician is a businessman with a specialty.  When a businessman of some other line learns the business of politics, he is a politician, and there is not much reform in him. Consider the United States Senate , and believe me.” [2]


“The bosses have us (voters) split up into parties.  To him parties are nothing but means to his corrupt ends.  He ‘bolts’ his party, but we must not;  the bribe-giver changes his party, from one election to another, from one county to another, from one city to another…” [3]


“…bribery is no ordinary felony, but treason, that the corruption which breaks out here and there and now and then is not an occasional offense, but a common practice, and the effect of it is literally to change the form of our government from one that is representative of the people to an oligarchy, representative of special interests.” [4]

The Shame of St. Louis


One of Lincoln Steffens exposes centered on the city of St. Louis, writing a series of articles covering an unfolding corruption scandal that no other newspaperman dared write about for fear of reprisals.  The men involved ran the gamut from small time hoodlums, policemen, an ex-mayor, assemblymen (councilmen), merchants, bankers as well as other prominent citizens.  The unfolding scandal was enormous, and the tentacles of corruption seemingly endless.  Here is part of Steffens’ written account:

“The corruption of St. Louis came from the top.  The best citizens—the merchants and big financiers—used to rule the town… businessmen were not mere merchants and the politicians were not mere grafters;  the two kinds of citizens got together and wielded the power of banks, railroads, factories, the prestige of the city, and the spirit of its citizens to gain business…” 


He then quotes the Circuit [District] Attorney.

“Our investigations covering more or less a period of ten years, shows that, with few exceptions, no ordinance has been passed wherein valuable privileges or franchises are granted until those interested have paid the legislators…

From the Assembly (city council), bribery spread into other departments.  Men empowered to issue peddlers’ licenses and permits to citizens… charged an amount in excess of the prices stipulated by law, and pocketed the difference.  The city’s money was loaned at interest and the interest was converted into private bank accounts.  City carriages were used by the wives and children of city officials.  Supplies for public institutions found their way to private tables; one itemized account of food for the poorhouse included California jellies, imported cheeses, and French wines! 


 …Men ran into debt to the extent of thousands of dollars for the sake of election to the Assembly.  One night, on a streetcar going to City Hall, a new member remarked that the nickel he handed the conductor was his last.  The next day he deposited $5,000 in a savings bank…


The blackest years were 1898, 1899 and 1900.  Foreign corporations came into the city to share in its despoliation and home industries were driven out by blackmail.  Franchises worth millions were granted without one cent of cash to the city, and with provision for only the smallest future payment; several companies which refused to pay blackmail had to leave; citizens were robbed more and more boldly; payrolls were padded with the names of non-existent persons; work on public improvements was neglected, while money for them went to the boodlers… Behind the corruptionists were men of wealth and social standing, who because of special privileges granted them, felt bound to support and defend the looters. Independent victims of the far-reaching conspiracy submitted in silence, through fear of injury to their business.  Men whose integrity was never questioned, who held high positions of trust, who were church members and teachers of Bible classes, contributed to the support of the dynasty… the system became loose through license and plenty till it was as wild and weak as that of [Boss] Tweed in New York.


Then the unexpected happened—an accident.  There was no uprising of the people, but they were restive; and the Democratic party leaders, thinking to gain some independent votes, decided to raise the cry “reform” and put up a ticket of candidates different enough from the usual offerings of political parties to give it color to their platform.  These leaders were not in earnest.  There was little difference between the two parties in the city; but the rascals that were in had been getting the greater share of the spoils and the ‘outs’ wanted more than was given to them… Simply as part of the game, the Democrats raised the slogan “reform” and no more [Mayor] Ziegenheinism.” [5]

The investigation that unraveled had been the work of an enterprising and honest Circuit [District] Attorney named Folk, who had been appointed at the behest of many of the men of high position in the city who Folk would later come to prosecute.  Initially they had thought that appointing an honest man as Circuit Attorney would give the perfect cover to their schemes, after all it was they who approached Mr. Folk to be Circuit Attorney.  As Folk’s corruption investigation came to light, the same men fearing for their own livelihoods did their utmost to derail Folk’s further work.  Steffens describes what occurs next this way:

“ At the meeting of corruptionists three courses were decided upon.  Political leaders were to work on the Circuit Attorney by promise of future reward, or by threats.  Detectives were to ferret out of the young lawyer’s past anything that could be used against him.  Witnesses would be sent out of town and provided with money to remain away until the adjournment of the grand jury.  Mr. Folk at once felt the pressure…


Statesmen, lawyers, merchants, clubmen, churchmen—in fact men prominent in all walks of life visited him at his office and at his home, and urged that he cease such activity against his fellow townspeople.  Political preferment was promised if he would yield; a political grave if he persisted.  Threatening letters came, warning him of plots to murder, to disfigure and to blackguard [blacklist him]…


With [Folk’s] first successes… he soon had them [the targets of his investigation] suspicious of one another, exchanging charges of betrayal and ready to ‘squeal’ or run…" [6]


"When another grand jury was sworn and proceeded to take testimony there were scores of men who threw up their hands and crying ‘Mea Culpa’ begged to be permitted to tell all they knew and not be prosecuted.  The inquiry broadened. 


The son of a former mayor was indicted for misconduct in office while serving as his father’s private secretary, and the grand jury recommended that the ex-mayor be sued in civil courts, to recover interests on public money which he had placed in his own pocket.  A true bill fell on a former City Register, and more Assemblymen were arrested, charged with making illegal contracts with the city.  At last the ax struck upon the trunk of the greatest oak of the forest.  Colonel Butler, the boss who had controlled elections in St. Louis for many years, the millionaire who had risen from bellows boy in a blacksmith’s shop to be the maker and guide of the Governors of Missouri…" [7]


"In all cities, the better classes—the businessmen—are the sources of corruption; but they are so rarely pursued and caught that we do not fully realize whence the trouble comes.  Thus most cities blame the politicians and the ignorant and vicious poor. 


Mr. Folk has shown that St. Louis, that its bankers, brokers, corporation officers,--its businessmen are the sources of evil, so that from the start it will know the municipal problem in its true light…But for the rest of us, it does not matter about St. Louis any more than it matters about Colonel Butler et al [and others].  The point is, that what went on in St. Louis is going on in most of our cities, towns and villages.  The problem of municipal government in America has not been solved.  The people may be tired of it, but they cannot give up… " [8]

Lincoln Steffens wrote these words in 1902, and yet more than 100 years later the problem persists.  In fact, absent the names of the individuals involved in the scandal of the St. Louis investigation conducted by the Circuit Attorney, a reader today could easily recognize the pattern and insert names of current or ex-politicos. The scams are the same; the theft of city services, city moneys, no show jobs, bribes, quid pro quos, backroom deals, inflated city contracts benefiting insiders, sweetheart deals to adopt laws traded for jobs for family members of politicians, in industry or corporate America—the scams are the same only the faces and names change, and at heart is an ongoing network of corruption and an organized criminal enterprise, that saps the resources of American cities, drives up the costs of city services while bankrupting those same towns, cities and states. 



Victor Saraiva,



Our next newsletter issue will pursue this question of the prevalence of corruption in American politics, by looking at both national and local examples of questionable governance, and the long shadow of impropriety.




1. Steffens, Lincoln., The Shame of the Cities, NY, McClure, Phillips & Co., 1904, Introduction.

2. ibid, p.4

3. ibid, p.5

4. ibid, p.17 

5. ibid, p.25

6. ibid, p.34

7. ibid, p. 39

8. ibid p. 41


Posted  December 31 2006

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