by Robert J. Schmidt
“THE POLITICAL BROTHEL OF AMERICA”
In a state where political corruption is legion, the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania stands out as its epicenter. In the early 1970s, Chicago’s mayor Richard J. Daley told Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District’s Common Cause representative that Lackawanna County was the “political brothel of America.” In 2009, after federal officials convicted more than two dozen public officials on an assortment of corruption charges, including two Luzerne county judges that netted 2.8 million in the Kids-for-Cash scandal, the Philadelphia Inquirer described corruption in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area as a “mother lode of corruption.” An Associated Press headline from 2010 read: “Corruption Runs Rampant in PA Coal Country.” Local corruption is frequently sensationalized by the national and local press, as well as other representations, including playwright Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize winning That Championship Season (1972) and Saturday Night Live’s Joe Biden skit from 2009, but the region’s notoriety undoubtedly extrapolates from actually existing trends.
Political corruption spans a broad continuum, from the benign and mundane to the egregious and outright unacceptable. It includes the ‘honest graft’ of cronyism and nepotism (e.g. steering public sector jobs or inflated contracts to family members and political supporters) and other activities that tend to stay inside the boundaries of the law. For example, a Scranton Times investigation of nepotism in the hiring practices of the Dunmore School District in 2014 revealed that about one of every ten employees were related to a top district official. Yet, corruption also entails bribery, extortion, and exacting political retribution on a scale that prompts state and federal investigations and draws national embarrassment to the region.
The Northeastern Pennsylvanian brand of political corruption ranges from the tragic to the heroic. Power drunk politicos have shamelessly abused their power, wasted public resources, and disgraced the integrity of public office en route to enriching themselves and their family and friends. Even still, corrupt and ethically challenged activities have been credited for delivering much needed economic development and public transfers from Harrisburg or Washington. Congressmen Dan Flood and Joseph McDade, most notably, have unsettled the distinction between the spoils of corrupt deal making and the strong, attentive political representation that their working class constituents expect. Both were re-elected amid federal corruption investigations because combined they delivered more than two billion dollars in federal spending—from urban renewal funds to military contracts—to the region.
Beneath the surface of intrigue and scandal lay structural conditions, situational forces, and extraordinary circumstances that lead otherwise ordinary people to engage corrupt activities. Pervasive corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania is rooted in its political culture, which holds public office as an instrumental and practical means to serve the material needs of the public. Representing a region devastated by the collapse of anthracite mining and subsequent waves of economic restructuring, political leaders have been challenged to fill a deep economic void by using their power to deliver jobs and welfare to residents, subsidies and grants to local businesses. Under these political and economic constraints, corruption is not an aberration, but an inevitable and recurring episode of every-day politics.
A CONDENSED HISTORY OF LOCAL CORRUPTION
The anthracite industry returned large profits to absentee investors. However, the working class suffered under-employment and insecurity from the industry’s chronic overproduction and seasonal slumps. Ethnic political machines emerged in response to economic insecurity, delivering spoils and patronage to a mostly-immigrant working class. And like New York’s Tammany Hall, local political machines were beset by recurring scandals involving election fraud, embezzlement, and racketeering. In the late 1920s, for example, Scranton’s Mayor Edmund Jermyn, with the help of more than a dozen law enforcement officials, operated a county-wide gambling racket that involved 106 individuals. Area gamblers testified to delivering the mayor monthly payments through a “bagman” for the protection of dozens of slot machines throughout the city. Investigators calculated that over three years, the racket netted Jermyn and others more than $400K.
From the 1870s until World War II, Scranton and Wilkes-Barre were ‘wide open’ towns. They boasted scores of gambling dens, brothels, unlicensed saloons, and other commercialized vice establishments operating largely without restraint. Though political leaders and law enforcement officials led periodic vice raids to appease middle-class voters and generate municipal revenue, they also provided protection to racketeers in exchange for bribes and campaign contributions. Indeed, racketeering provided many working class residents with a much-needed source of alternative income, particularly during the depression. During that time, local political leaders elected not to enforce dry laws on the thousands of illegal distilleries (from home distilleries to mammoth industrial grade plants) that produced bootleg alcohol for local consumption and markets throughout the northeastern U.S.
As the region transitioned to a manufacturing-based economy after World War II, the working class received less income from commercialized vice and related rackets. Organized crime nonetheless remained influential in local politics and became entrenched in the burgeoning garment trade and anthracite leases and sub-contracting. The region was a focus of the Kefauver Committee on organized crime. In 1957, a dynamiting in Scranton provoked the McClellan Committee’s inquiry on labor racketeering. Although these inquiries revealed widespread local corruption embarrassed political leaders, they also received credit from national newspapers for working hand-in-hand with local business leaders to lead spirited and self-financed industrial recruitment and revitalization efforts.
Another wave of corruption accompanied the deindustrialization the region suffered through in the 1970s. For example, more than 20 schoolboard members from five different districts across the region were convicted on corruption charges in the mid-1970s. By the end of the decade, Dan Flood’s questionable ethics led to his conviction and censure from congress. The Pennsylvania Crime Commission’s reports in the late 1970s and early 1980s revealed widespread racketeering and corruption throughout the region. These reports inspired criminologist Gary Potter to study street-level racketeering and corruption in Scranton in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Commission investigators uncovered campaign law violations between Scranton-area racketeers and Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate. Preate, a Scranton-area native and former Lackawanna County District Attorney long accused of protecting organized crime, entered into a plea agreement on charges of mail fraud in the mid-1990s and was sentenced to federal prison. Meanwhile, Congressman McDade was indicted in 1992 on charges that he accepted bribes from five defense-related firms in exchange for contracts (although he maintained his innocence and was later acquitted).
There were a series of scandals across state and county government in the 2000s. In 2004, the state of Pennsylvania awarded a casino license to Louis DeNaples, a wealthy and politically-connected financer from Lackawanna County with a felony conviction dating back to the 1970s. State investigators later accused DeNaples of perjury concerning questions about his relationship to organized crime figures, including reputed mafia boss Russell Bufalino. Matt Birbick covered this controversy in Allentown’s Morning Call and later published a top-selling chronicle on Bufalino, The Quiet Don, which also examined the DeNaples controversy against the backdrop of region’s history of organized crime. Meanwhile, the Luzerne county Kids-for-Cash scandal ushered in a federal sweep that exposed corruption across various levels of local government. A few years later federal investigators moved their focus twenty miles north to Lackawanna County, where county commissioners Robert Cordaro and A.J. Munchack engaged in a range of lucrative graft-seeking activities stemming from multi-million dollar county-financed projects. In 2012, Pennsylvania Senator Robert Mellow, a politico credited with steering tens of millions in local development from state coffers over his thirty-year tenure, was indicted on a range of corruption charges, accepting a guilty plea in exchange for leniency. In 2016, a decade after Preate’s conviction, another Scranton-born Attorney General, Kathleen Kane, was disgraced by her conviction on nine charges, including perjury and leaking grand jury information to damage a political enemy.
POLITICAL CORRUPTION AS ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT OF LAST REORT
Sadly, the region’s legacy of economic distress continues to incubate its political corruption. While there may be a temptation to interpret these patterns as the work of a few “bad apples,” as historical relics, or as residual leftovers from the anthracite era, casting a shadow over all of it is a political culture that holds the spoils and power of public office as a solution to enduring economic distress. Put simply, area political leaders have used the power of their positions to gain an advantage in the competition for much needed investment and public transfers. Machine politics, arm-twisting, grantsmanship, and tactical lobbying have not only steered federal and state dollars in ways that cushioned the region’s economic distress and insulated it from state and federal austerity, but have also generated economic activity that private investment alone may not have delivered. In fact, this capacity to produce powerful political leaders has been an important front upon which the region has been competitive in the national economy. As Scranton Times columnist Thomas X. Flannery explained, “Politics has always been a major element in our game of trying to stay even. Coal died in the 1950s. By all rules of economic logic, we should have become a ghost town.” In a similar vein, Potter’s study of Scranton credited reputed organized crime figures, from the small-scale racketeer to multi-millionaire businessmen, as regrettably the “largest investor in the economic health and security in Scranton.” He argued that crime, politics, and finance are the pillars of the area economy.
It is indeed a troubling state of affairs when political reform movements have been unsuccessful because the perception is that the region has had far more to gain from a culture of corruption than it does clean-government and reform-oriented leaders. Like so many of the region’s local problems, the key to transforming this culture of corruption therefore involves targeting its economic roots. Without finding other solutions to the most pressing needs of working class residents, the pursuit of honest government and political reform will invariably remain a fruitless endeavor.
Robert J. Schmidt is an independent scholar and “radical geographer” who is currently writing a book titled, Revitalization and its Discontents: Economic Development and Political Corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania.