By Brian O'Neill,
Sunday, March 21, 2010
One of the worst corruption scandals in American history erupted 100
years ago today in Pittsburgh.
That's right, boys and girls. On this day in 1910, some 41
Pittsburghers - council members, bankers and industrialists - were
indicted for corruption.
This was back when a Republican machine ran the city. (Pittsburgh has
been chronically allergic to two-party government.) A bicameral City
Council had more than 100 members, all of them unsalaried and most
willing to do any industrialist's bidding for the right price. When the
city celebrated its bicentennial nearly five decades later, historian
George Swetnam looked back and said:
"For two full generations, almost without a break, the city was in the
grip of one or another faction of the most cold-blooded and vicious
political ring that ever ruled an American city."
Dan Sullivan alerted me that this was the centennial for Graftapalooza.
Mr. Sullivan, 60, who lives on a dead-end street he describes as "a
little section of West Virginia between Oakland and Squirrel Hill [actually, Polish Hill -ds]," has
been tweaking city hall for the 22 years I've known him.
He sent me ancient newspaper accounts that he'd gotten from the
Internet. I began reading and entered a world that made modern politics
seem - dare I say it? - almost honest.
Voters in the Gilded Age had tried to reform this booming city, but new
scoundrels kept replacing the old. By 1910, Pittsburgh had swallowed
the city of Allegheny and renamed it the North Side, making this
briefly the eighth-largest city in the country. Mayor George Guthrie,
reform mayor of the new "Greater Pittsburgh" of more than a
half-million souls, quit in 1909 because he had no prayer of beating
the well-organized council commandoes down the hall, who regularly
passed bills over his veto.
The most compelling rogue on council, judging from contemporary
accounts, was "Smiling Johnnie" Klein, a Monongahela "wharf rat" who in
1909 made the mistake of waving six $5,000 bills in front of a saddler
friend who actually worked for a living.
That man, Ernest Lee Frey, paid taxes. He didn't appreciate Klein's
easy money. So he went to the city auditor Frank Kimball, who knew that
just a few days before, Smiling Johnnie's crowd had designated six
banks as depositories of city funds.
Soon began an investigation that took the smile off Johnnie's face.
Mayor Guthrie brought in a lawyer, Leo Weil, financed by well-heeled
reformers. (Some say Andrew Carnegie was among them.)
Mr. Weil was good. A few years before, he'd stopped crooked council
members from turning over the new Grant Boulevard (later renamed
Bigelow Boulevard) to a railway. Mr. Weil took a train to Washington
and persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to send his best bank
Mr. Weil also brought in a Scranton private eye who posed as a lumber
baron who wanted to pave the city streets with blocks of wood. He
invited council members into his hotel room at the Fort Pitt Hotel
(then at the corner of 10th and Penn). He bored holes in doors of his
room so witnesses could listen to every bribe he received for the
scheme to pave Fourth Avenue from Grant to Market Street.
Arrests followed by the score. Smiling Johnnie sang like a canary. The
reports I could find didn't say how many wound up in the slammer, but
council would never be the same. The old, two-tiered setup - a Select
Council with one member from each ward and a Common Council with
representation based on the amount of taxable property - was replaced
in 1911 with the single, nine-member, salaried council we have today.
"And when the reform way stops rolling it's likely that Pittsburgh will
be washed clean," The
New York Times wrote in a 1910 story headlined
Amazing Story of Graft."
Washed clean? Not by a
long shot, but whatever else can be said about
today's politics, it not only could be worse, it has been.
Mr. Sullivan notes that the old Council was modeled after the House of
Lords and the House of Commons.
"Today we have the Act 47 [state] oversight board serving as the House
of Lords," he said. "We have almost come full circle."
I should also mention that a hundred years ago, Pittsburgh was spelled
"Pittsburg," without the "h." That lasted from 1890 to 1911, the same
years the city was its most corrupt. Coincidence? Maybe, but it makes
me wonder how much Smiling Johnnie and the boys got for that silent
Comments by Dan Sullivan:
Although Brian told the story about as well as possible within the limited
space of his column, I would disagree with his view that "modern
seem... almost honest" by comparison. I do not believe that there is
less corruption, but only that it is more sophisticated and
less blatant. Direct bribes have been replaced with campaign
contributions, which seem to work just as well, and the transfer of
publicly created wealth into private hands, in the form of subsidies,
tax breaks and other favors, vastly exceeds the level of such transfers
as occurred in these "Graftapalooza" days.
The reform government that was created in 1911 was indeed superior, partly
because the reform council was properly paid, and partly because it
replaced a strong-mayor system, weak council by district system with a strong, at-large council system.
The corporate-backed Home Rule Charter reinstated the strong-mayor
system, and a later referendum returned us to a district council system.
The district-council system is not a problem in itself, but it
aggravates the strong-mayor system. Council members who buck the mayor
find that their districts are punished with worse city services. As
most deals are brokered under the mayor's auspices, it is
important to have a council that will readily stand up to the mayor.
County is much worse, because County Council is grossly underpaid and
understaffed. As a result, County Council ends up being a rubber stamp
for the county executive.