|Nucky Johnson, in hat, next to Al Capone (3rd from right)|
In the fall of 2010 my husband and I began watching the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. My husband never passes up a show about gangsters, and I love a good period piece based on real history. The plot dealt with the action surrounding the Atlantic City treasurer, one Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (played by Steve Buscemi), who has his velvet-gloved iron hand inside every pot in town.
Only a week earlier, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published a twelve-page-long special report of federal charges brought against Frank Russo, the county auditor. Bribery, tax fraud, and every other form of corruption had been part of his makeup for decades. He provided political support to two Common Pleas judges in return for favorable rulings. He guaranteed a construction contract to a company which gifted him a $6,000 gambling junket to Las Vegas. He took bribes to engineer hiring at the sheriff’s office, to provide contracts to build a juvenile justice center and a halfway house for ex-cons, to tweak appraisals of commercial property, and to get free home improvements.
Russo’s partner of sorts, since the early 80s, was county commissioner Jimmy Dimora. Dimora had spearheaded the city’s purchase of an EPA ‘brownfield’ lot to rehabilitate as a juvenile justice center—except that the land had only been worth $400K when Russo’s office auctioned it to a subsidiary company, who then sold it back to the city for $2.75 million. He made an equally bad deal to rehab a downtown complex for city offices; the taxpayers coughed up $40 million, but the rehab never occurred.
The huge dollar amounts are too abstract for my focus; it’s the small details that catch the eye—like how a members of a suburb’s school district staff and their school board used Dimora and Russo’s contractors in return for credit cards and home improvements. Several received a TV set. One was gifted a tractor. Another drove off with the school’s mobile classroom to use as a hunting cabin, which I doubt the deer found very educational. Perhaps cash is more easily justified in one’s own mind…it’s not personal. It’s the cost of doing business. It’s the way things are done. I did a good job, I deserve a little perk. But how does one reconcile a tractor?
The fact is cash is often not the most common currency used in these deals. That would be jobs. To get two teaching positions for his daughters a construction manager built a retaining wall around Dimora’s pool, a decidedly less glamorous (or fungible) trade. An official of the plumber’s union winterized Dimora’s icemaker and ran a gas line to heat his pool in order to secure a promotion for his wife and summer jobs for his kids. A financial management company wanted to get on the county’s list to provide financial services to public employees. His cost? A thousand dollars in fake palm trees for each of their back yards. Their dinner parties must have been the stuff of legends.
The list goes on and on. And on.
The real-life Nucky Johnson (changed to Thompson in the show) handed out jobs from janitor to mayor and took them away if annoyed, as when a police officer gave his chauffer a ticket. His empire finally fell when the FBI found a copy of an illegal contract he’d failed to destroy; it paid Nucky three-fifths of the profits from a city railroad contract.
Halfway through the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, I turned to my husband and said, “Nothing has changed.”
Do you see history repeating itself in your town?