Saturday, December 04, 2010

Crimes Wee and Huge


Rather than expand on what Chuck Turner and others said at his expulsion meeting this week, I'd muse on race and class and power.

Masochists' Pointers (for those who haven't had enough): My recaps are here and here. Plus, Chris Lovett has a meaty post on Turner's comparing himself to former Alderman/Mayor/Gov. James Michael Curley. At Commonwealth Magazine, Michael Jonas frets eloquently on what this will mean to the two young Councilors who testified so powerfully before voting for Turner's removal.

I would like to be able to point you to The Bulletin's editorial this week, If you're black, you're fast tracked. Those are still in the freebie racks on the street and at the exits of supermarkets. The staff over there seems to harbor some fantasy that they'll make lots of money making people pay for a subscription to read the wan little tabloid online. I don't think so.

Regardless, that piece explores the belief of many Turner observers and supporters — he became an FBI sting target because he was black. Now Turner also states strongly that he is such a powerful advocate for the rights of the poor that he had to go down. That's a lot harder set of dots to connect.

First, we have to note that the other black pol in the sting, ex-state Sen. Dianne Wilkerson was a key catalyst here. With her long sordid previous record of financial sloppiness and illegality, she attracted the sting operation. Apparently she also told the FBI informant to pay off Turner as well to get a liquor license. With that attention, he became a target, one that U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan seemed gleefully eager to aim for in the string.

The Bulletin notes that over the years, higher up white pols have done worse without facing prison, as seems certain for both Wilkerson and Turner. The editorial states fairly, "The point however is that crime and punishment are not always equal when it comes to the skin color of elected officials. The wheels of justice certainly seem to be moving faster now that a black man is standing in front of them."

Many point out that white pols do get caught. Maybe, but let's consider what has happened to crooks in just one MA office, Speaker of the House.
Speaker TermCrimesPenalty
John Thompson1958-64 resignedConspiracy; briberyDied before case resolved
Charles Flaherty1991-96 resignedTax evasion for business expenses and conflict of interest for vacation housing from lobbyistsGuilty plea; 2 years probation and $25,000 fine
Thomas Finneran1996-2004 resignedObstruction of justice in redistrictingGuilty plea in exchange for dropping perjury charges; 18 months probation and $25,000 fine
Salvatore DiMasi2004-09 resignedRigging state contracts to his benefitTo stand trial

Well, Turner is not exactly Jean Valjean stealing a loaf of bread for his starving family and getting prison time for it. Yet in contrast to the wealthy Speakers, he almost certainly will receive a highly disproportionate penalty for the magnitude of his corruption — $1,000 bribe and three counts of lying to the feds about it.

We just saw another black pol, Congressman Charlie Rangel get publicly scolded for many, many times worse at much higher amounts than Turner. Rangel's punishment was to stand in the well of the U.S. House and hear a list of his evil deeds. As my late mother might have exclaimed, "For crying out loud in a bucket!"

This clearly is class and power based. The influential say they're sorry and get probation and a fine.

That's not right. That's not moral. That's not the American ideal, at least not any populist version.

It brings to mind a trivial James Cagney movie of the late 1950s, Never Steal Anything Small. That was about a corrupt union official and played on a recurring theme. Supposedly the Greek proverb related to this is If you steal something small you are a petty thief, but if you steal millions you are a gentleman of society.

We really can't say that the disgraced Speakers were exalted after their crimes. However, none went to prison. Even the $25,000 fines to those rich guys likely caused as much hardship as a pro footballer paying for a nasty hit on another player.

Turner can be annoying and even obnoxious, but not because he's black. Given the same situation as the corrupt Speakers, he did not cut a plea deal nor show or even feign remorse. If that alone did not prevent him from getting just a fine and probation, his small bribe and low political status surely would.

It is difficult to believe in the justice of it all. At the very least, instead of thinking that Turner got hit too hard, how can we doubt that the big guys committing the big crimes got off too easy?



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