The Color of Corruption 

Governmental crime is an equal-opportunity pastime.

When asked by The Commercial Appeal about the recent arrests of councilmen Rickey Peete and Edmund Ford for accepting bribes to advance a zoning proposal, Rhodes College professor Marcus Pohlmann went far beyond the usual blather about crime being bad and law enforcement being good and articulated out loud something that had been the subject of ample muttering on the street: Were blacks being targeted preferentially?

Oh, NOOOO! came a chorus of response from official sources. Justice is color-blind.

Well, is it?

Oldsters among us may recall that, a year or so before the Watergate burglary brought down President Richard Nixon, the coastal newspapers of record (the Post of Washington and the Times papers of New York and L.A.) were working overtime trying to demonstrate an illegally cozy arrangement between Nixon's reelection committee and the city of San Diego, then under consideration as a convention site.

This was high finance, mind you, and though the papers' heavy hitters did their best to make the millions of dollars' worth of complicated quid pro quos intelligible, finally the public at large yawned, and the issue of presidential corruption was shelved, until ... Bingo! A burglary at the Watergate Hotel. Second-story men. Skullduggery under cover of night. Now we're talking!

The moral of the story? To facilitate the administration of justice, crimes ideally need to be basic and easily understandable to the lay-mind. Clinton got in serious trouble for screwing around and lying about it. "Is" was "is." And that's all there was to it.

Fade to the Enron scandal, in which respected executives eventually were brought to justice for a bogus accounting system that for a decade and more bilked billions from their employees and the public and whole states. Only after the company was forced into bankruptcy and somebody belatedly blew a whistle did Enron's complicated schemes unravel and incur serious prosecutorial interest.

Closer to home is the now-revealed scheme under which a $6 million federal/state grant to build a public transportation facility was converted into a for-profit parking garage to enrich the Memphis Grizzlies' management company.

No doubt that giveaway was part of the bait to attract the NBA team to our city; no doubt the parties -- both in and out of public office -- who approved the ploy understood it as such. The argument can even be made that this particular sleight of hand benefited the greater community.

It's still a deception and, more than arguably, a swindle. And the sum involved is vastly more consequential that the chump change that councilmen Peete and Ford are accused of holding out their hands for. But legal action on the matter will require an exhaustive (and exhausting) search of mounds of records, and the close perusal of endless documents, and deposition upon deposition from the government and civic and entrepreneurial figures involved.

It wasn't a sting, see. No cameras were involved, no pre-arranged ipso facto evidence, no simple -- and visible -- passage of money from hand to hand.

It was otherwise -- and ever will be otherwise -- with the likes of Peete and Ford and, for that matter, the Tennessee Waltz indictees. Nothing sophisticated and layered under level after level of bureaucratic process and contractual nuance. Just, "give me the money, and I'll do what you want done."

Political graft at this level is basically blue-collar crime committed by people wearing white collars. Just as on the chessboard, it's the pawns that get picked off so as to facilitate the trickier -- and more sweeping -- moves of the other, intricately endowed pieces.

By definition, the kind of easy-do, easy-see showcase crime that in the last couple of years has netted so many greedy figures in public life is going to be committed disproportionately by people from more modest upbringings and circumstances. Yes, that means relatively more African Americans.

But you may take it on faith that there is a fairly teeming caste of scofflaws -- disproportionately Caucasian and operating at a loftier, more cautious, yet far more remunerative level -- who are so far undiscovered, or at least unindicted.

It may well be that the infinitely more difficult task of bringing these lawbreakers to justice is the next thing up on the local law-enforcement agenda.

But don't hold your breath.

Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.


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