After Miami Herald stories exposing corruption in Miami-Dade County, a familiar disparagement has become inevitable in the e-mail reaction and readers’ comments. “Nothing but a damn banana republic,” they complain, implying an ethnic superiority, as if local government was a pristine enterprise before an influx of Cuban exiles ruined South Florida’s fine Anglo ethic.
Smiling Jimmy Sullivan, the sheriff of Dade County excoriated by the 1950 Kefauver Commission for his lucrative ties to mobsters, would have been amused.
The tired, familiar references showed up in my e-mail in-box after last week’s column about election-rigging allegations against the campaign organizations of both U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia and his predecessor David Rivera. Not that jobbing the vote should be a forgivable transgression, but compared to the days when Smiling Jimmy was banking $75,000 a year off his $12,000 salary, this was tepid stuff. In the 1930s and ’40s and ’50s, Miami-Dade College history professor Paul George reminds us, the Dade County Courthouse was widely known as the “steal” courthouse.
Sen. Estes Kefauver’s commission, during those explosive hearings into organized crime, discovered that legions of our local government officials were hired toadies for the likes of mobsters like Joe Adonis, Frank Erickson, Vincent Jimmy “Blue Eyes” Alo, “Trigger Mike” Coppola, Sammy “Game Boy” Miller and Willie “Lefty” Bischoff, not to mention the casino kingpin brothers, Meyer and Jake Lansky. Al Capone, who owned a palace on Star Island and a throng of Miami politicians, had died, else he would have headed the list.
Not that the Kefauver findings were big news in Miami. A 1949 Dade County Grand Jury panel complained, “We could not see any purpose in repeating the work of our predecessor juries to discover officially and at great length that crime and corruption do exist here. Conditions have apparently not changed since the writing of the 1944 grand jury report. There is present in our community a large number of individuals of unsavory reputation. These persons are criminals of national stature. All forms of gambling are flourishing and there appeared to be little effort to curb them, although they were being carried on right under the eyes of the police.”
“I guess we were a mango republic before we were a banana republic,” said Paul George, who, as official historian of the Historical Association of Southern Florida, ought to know. Off the top of his head, he rattled off a long list of elected officials in Miami and Dade County nabbed for kickbacks and bribery and other malfeasances, long before the great Latin influx.
North of Dade, Sheriff Walter Clark took it even further. The Kefauver Commission noted that Broward’s most powerful elected official not only permitted 52 illegal mob-run casinos to operate in plain sight, he and his brother raked in a million bucks a year supplying these joints their slot machines. The sheriff called his little sideline the Broward Novelty Company.
“This is the reason I got out of Dade [Miami-Dade],” a reader e-mailed me last week, after the column about the unseemly allocations in Congressional District 26. He was e-mailing from that same Broward County, which he seemed to regard as a refuge from this insidious wave of Latin corruption. He must have forgotten the corruption convictions over the last six years of a Broward sheriff, a Broward state senator, two Broward County commissioners, one Broward school board member, the former mayor of Parkland and city commissioners from Hollywood, Miramar, Fort Lauderdale and Deerfield Beach.
In the next Anglo refuge north of Miami’s corruption sump, four Palm Beach County commissioners and two West Palm Beach city commissioners and the former chairman of the South Florida Water Management District have gone down for various kickback and bribery schemes.
My own skepticism about the immigrant dimension to political corruption probably goes back to my own roots, in West Virginia, a state, 94 percent non-Hispanic, that in 1990 sent a three-term governor to prison to join two successive presidents of the State Senate, the former Senate majority leader and a member of the House of Delegates.
Two years before that, the Herald dispatched me to southern West Virginia, to Mingo County, 96.39 percent white, and the spectacularly corrupt town of Kermit, 99.5 percent white, and not a single person listed on the census as foreign born. Sixty city and county officials had just been busted. The police chief was nabbed for selling drugs. The fire chief for arson. The school board president was busted for bribing jurors. The head of the antipoverty agency was stealing program money. Federal investigators photographed a handwritten sign taped to a walk-up window by the Kermit police station: “Out of drugs. Back in 30 minutes.”
Federal investigators said Kermit’s convenient “drive-in, carry-out” became so busy peddling pot, cocaine, LSD, PCP — some of it filched from the Mingo County sheriff’s evidence locker — that the town cops had trouble finding a parking place.
The pervasiveness of official corruption in Mingo eclipsed anything we’ve seen lately in South Florida with three county commissioners and a city commissioner arrested, along with the sheriff, the police chief, a police captain, the county surveyor, the county public service commissioner, the county director of senior affairs, the county clerk. Even the cook at the county jail was convicted of bribing a public official.
The year before that, I was in East St. Louis, Ill., writing about an election in which three candidates running for mayor had done hard time for extortion, fraud, forgery, mail fraud and perjury, and one of the candidates was accused of attempting to arrange the murder-for-hire of a rival mayoral candidate.
At the time, East St. Louis was regarded as the most corrupt, dysfunctional city in America. Yet, no one employed the term “banana republic.”