The hooking of cheap crooks and the ones who swim away
Written by Michael Lewis on August 15, 2013
Don’t you feel worse about the arrests of two Miami-Dade mayors because the scam was so cheap?
Couldn’t FBI undercover agents have trolled bigger bait? After all, they hooked two mayors, one of whom was also attorney for another town, and a pair of lobbyists using less than $75,000 total.
Some checks were just $250. What an insult to corruption.
I know times are tough, but if they could have raised more sting money I’d have felt better about the effort to snag a couple of mayors than by waving a tiny packet of currency in their face.
Think of it, smearing three communities for less than $75,000 total. They tried for more mayors and the others wouldn’t bite. But try raising the ante and see all you could catch in South Florida.
It’s hard to see who was scammed most, the three communities or the guys the FBI helped along toward jail. And they got so little for the opportunity to get their names smeared in perpetuity, guilty or innocent.
At least when a Miami city official was charged the total alleged was $75,000 for just one person, and for not even a mayor but just a commissioner.
Of course, she was never guilty of anything and is today finishing out her term – in office, not where the mayors might wind up – but at least the charges felt like big-boy amounts.
Miami is a major league city. Let’s get big league in fishing for criminals.
The FBI, after all, set the scales of the bribes. With all the money Washington fritters away, couldn’t they come up with a bigger sting fund to hook wayward mayors?
It shows you how little we think of our officials that the dirtiest part of this scam to create a kickback scheme in the guise of a legitimate federal grant program is that we’re calling our mayors the cheapest of crooks.
One mayor and his joined-at-the-hip lobbyist pal allegedly got a total of $7,250 spread over five payments. As one of those playing in this sordid game said, “That’s pocket change.”
It is. But it has smeared three towns, regardless of whether anyone is ever found guilty of anything.
Think of the payments: $500 to set up a meeting. Another $750 in three separate checks. Who in his right mind would risk federal charges for that kind of money?
Well, some folks allegedly did. No sense naming the now-suspended mayors of Miami Lakes and Sweetwater or the attorney for Medley, who was one of the mayors. At the prices they’re linked with, they’re smaller fish than warrant labels – municipal minnows.
One takeaway from this fish tale is that there’s one lobbyist tied to each elected official through whom everything, legal or not, was done. It’s a handbook for how too much government here works. If we took away the lobbyists, would anything – legal or illegal – ever get done?
The second takeaway is that it took federal undercover agents to sting three smallish communities. Is local law enforcement tied too closely to elected officials and lobbyists and fundraisers to do the same job, or are we too timid to try?
The third takeaway is that crooks must beware of stings – but only if the bribes are small. At the prices involved, they’ll keep on catching only minnows.
We know times are tough in Washington with the sequestration and budget cuts and so on, but can’t they use as lures the kind of bait that will catch bigger fish?
If, for example, we want to police those who might get into legalizing massive casinos, just how far do you think the money that ensnared four folks last week would go? It wouldn’t cover a single good-size bet.
Which leads to the final two takeaways: It’s a lot easier to catch minnows than bigger fish, and it’s a lot easier to concoct small-time stings out of thin air than it is to ferret out big-money payoffs on costly brick-and-mortar projects like stadiums and highways and buildings and bridges.
So if the mayors and lobbyists actually did what’s alleged, throw the book at them.
But if that’s the way business is done in our governments – and the feds clearly think it goes far beyond three small towns – more sophisticated and better funded means are needed to stamp it out.
Until then, we’re going to be seeing a minnows parade of cheap crooks coming to justice while the bigger fish keep swimming away.