Scammers, fraudsters, and the task of “Un-Corrupting City Hall.”


This long read helpfully explains why New Albany’s Ethics Commission was stillborn.

Un-Corrupting City Hall, by Ethan McLeod (CityLab)

These cities all suffered notorious municipal scandals. What have officials and voters done to tackle corruption and keep it from happening again?

H. Philip West Jr. breathed a sigh of relief in June when Providence’s 294-room Graduate Hotel decided to remove the portraits of Vincent “Buddy” Cianci from its guestrooms. The longtime mayor, who died in 2016, is an iconic character in the Rhode Island capital’s history. But as far as West is concerned, Cianci is a stain on Providence—one that he’s spent years trying, unsuccessfully, to scrub away.

It was only five years ago that Cianci—out of prison after a racketeering conspiracy conviction in 2007 and twice forced to resign from office due to felony convictions nearly two decades apart—mounted a third run for mayor. He lost, but West, former director of Common Cause Rhode Island, was still troubled to see him draw 45 percent of the vote.

“When you’ve dealt with such a brilliant scammer and fraudster, how can you convince people that they should not support him? I’m not sure you ever can,” says West, who helped write a new city ethics code and create a municipal investigatory body after Cianci’s 2001 indictment. “Ultimately you just have to say, ‘We’re going to build a structure that’s going to hold anybody who’s elected going forward accountable.’”

That’s the same pledge that voters and leaders have made in other places where civic corruption has been a chronic issue. Weary from national embarrassment and seeing history repeat itself, cities like Baltimore, New Orleans, and Chicago have responded to political scandals with charter overhauls and executive orders, empowered independent investigators to probe corruption, and challenged problematic local political traditions.

But successfully leading a wave of reform can be a tall order, with human nature and deeply entrenched political culture standing in the way. “This is about personal greed,” Tim Krebs, chair of the University of New Mexico’s political science department, says. “As long as you have human beings in government, you’re not going to be able to root [corruption] out entirely.”

Boosting oversight doesn’t always work, and for some, the jury is still out as reforms await testing. But in cities large and small, when voters and officials commit to challenging corruption and embracing transparency, they’re seeing results.

Examples are offered from Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, Greater Los Angeles and New Orleans, before the narrative turns back to Providence.

The Providence Ethics Commission didn’t actually meet until 2015 … West said he’s proud of the ethics code and other reforms he helped with, but is bothered that he hasn’t yet seen the commission enforce the new rules for any violations. “With a power, you can’t really know what it is until you exercise it and you find out what the resistance is. I really can’t say that they’ve got decent enforcement power until I see that they’re using it.”

The coda.

“It takes a long time to build good government, and sadly, a clever, corrupt official can do great damage in short time,” he says. “Until those people retire and are gone, corruption will still have its presence, its taint.”