Thursday, March 20, 2008

Political Corruption

The Rowland/Waterbury debacle is back in the news and, thanks to a bout of insomnia, I’ve spent the past half hour reading through more-or-less anonymous comments posted to the Hartford Courant’s website on the topic. Most of the comments seem either ill-informed or just plain psychotic (I think some of the comment-writers have some serious personal issues that are inspiring them to express some very disturbing levels of hatred towards Rowland). Overall, however, there seems to be a general theme: Waterbury is closely associated with political corruption. This got me thinking—there really is a sort of general public concept that Waterbury is plagued by political corruption, but why is this the case? I don’t know that anyone has fully explored the topic. An upcoming issue of Forbes magazine will include an article about Waterbury and our more recent corruption scandals (Santopietro, Giordano, and the 1986 Moffett-O’Neill primary mess), but I have the impression that the article is just a survey piece, not a really in-depth examination.

Waterbury’s first major political scandal occurred in the 1930s, when Mayor T. Frank Hayes and many other people were charged and eventually convicted with defrauding the city of more than a million dollars. (My apologies in advance—it’s late, I’ve got insomnia, and I’m being loose with the facts—I hope to eventually do some more solid research on this topic.)

The city had a real reprieve with John S. Monagan became Mayor in the 1940s. Although he was young and somewhat inexperienced, Monagan was a genuinely honest and principled man who did his best for the city. Under his tenure, the city adopted a five year plan for improvement that included a comprehensive study and implementation of infrastructure needs.

Waterbury seems to have enjoyed several decades untroubled by political scandal after Hayes, although I do still need to do real research on this. Even decades after Hayes’ conviction, he still had many fervent supporters in Waterbury. This seems to be a typical feature of Waterbury politics, and is perhaps an important ingredient to our history of corruption. Former Mayor Santopietro was convicted in 1992 for taking bribes and kickbacks, but many people in Waterbury insisted that he was innocent, that he was “a good boy” and had taken the fall for some bad friends. (He has since been convicted of doing more or less the same thing again.)

The most hideous political scandal is that of former Mayor Giordano, who was being investigated by the FBI for financial fraud (including the notorious million-dollar dog pound) before being swiftly arrested and convicted of sexually assaulting children. Giordano is the worst that Waterbury has produced. Long before we knew he was a child molester, it was clear to many people that he was a crook. In fact, Giordano is one of the reasons why I moved into Waterbury—I wanted to be able to vote against him. I could not believe it when he was re-elected. It seemed like everyone knew he was up to no good, but he was still winning elections.

So why does Waterbury suffer under the stigma of political corruption? I feel certain there’s an answer to the question, but I don’t yet know what it is. I think it is interesting to look at who our mayors have been since 1976—Mike Bergin was Mayor from 1976 until 1986 (he was arrested and then acquitted of taking bribes, but there are plenty of people in Waterbury who are confident that he was guilty); Bergin was replaced by Santopietro, until Santopietro was arrested and eventually convicted; Bergin had by then been acquitted of his corruption charges, and he was voted back into office (which suggests a lot about the Waterbury electorate!). Bergin was replaced in 1996 by Giordano, whose term in office ended with his arrest in 2001. Over the course of 25 years, Waterbury had three mayors, all of whom have been investigated and arrested for corruption (I think that’s correct, although I’m not positive that Giordano has yet been charged with political corruption).

The emergence of political corruption in Waterbury seems to coincide with the death of the brass industry in this city. Are they related? I don’t know. I think the small size of the city is part of the problem, for a number of reasons. I think, perhaps, the structure of the political parties in Waterbury is also part of the problem (seriously, HOW did Giordano end up as his party’s candidate for mayor??? I met the man once, briefly, and could tell immediately that he was slimy. Wasn’t there anyone else who was willing to run for office?).

Someday I hope to do more on this topic. I think there’s a very interesting story to tell, but it’s going to take a lot of unraveling of history and opinion.


Peter said...

Any connection between political corruption and the decline of the brass industry is relatively unlikely because of the timing. The industry was pretty much finished by the early to middle 1970's, after years of decline, while Waterbury politics remained relatively clean for at least another decade. You wouldn't really expect such a long gap if there were a real connection.

BTW, I knew Santopietro slightly, and had several mutual acquaintances, and yes, the "fall guy" theory was widespread at the time.

Waterbury Girl said...

Thanks to Forbes, I can now add a new contributing factor to Waterbury's corruption history--merchants offering special deals and restaurants offering free meals to politicians who earn three times the median city income. At one extreme, it's an innocent, kind gesture. At the other extreme, it's a felony.