Today marks an important New York anniversary, although not one to be commemorated by any official proceeding.
Twenty years ago this morning, one of the city’s most powerful politicians, a chunky man named Donald Manes who doubled as both Queens Democratic Party leader and borough president, was pulled over by two cops who saw his car swerving dangerously across traffic lanes on the Grand Central Parkway. Inside, they found Manes, dazed, incoherent, and bleeding profusely from a slash to his wrist. Instructed by headquarters to use no names on their radios, police rushed him to the hospital under deep secrecy.
But there was no way to harness the secrets any longer. Manes’ suicide attempt opened the floodgates on a string of scandals involving crooked city officials and political leaders that rocked the mayoral administration of Ed Koch who had just been overwhelmingly re-elected to a third term.
The scandals caught most people by surprise. In the mainstream media, Koch had been celebrated as a mayor who rose above grubby politics, choosing his appointees on merit, not clubhouse connections. That view had to be quickly amended.
The borough president’s crisis on the highway had been sparked by frantic worries that his many corrupt bribe schemes, including shakedowns of city vendors and city marshals, were coming unraveled amid burgeoning investigations. Before all the stories were told, Manes was dead by his own hand of another, successful, suicide attempt; Bronx county Democratic leader Stanley Friedman was convicted of peddling a fraudulent handheld computer gizmo for parking ticket issuers (somehow, it didn’t really exist when the city agreed to buy it); legendary Brooklyn boss Meade Esposito was found guilty as well, not for anything he did with his many mob pals, but for a separate contract scam carried out with, of all people, Congressman and former hero cop Mario Biaggi. Commissioners of transportation, ports and terminals, taxi and limousine, all clubhouse pets recommended by the party bosses, were pushed out amid ever-escalating episodes of municipal disgrace.
All told, more than 100 city employees were convicted of malfeasance between 1985 and 1988; scores more were kicked out of office.
The best catalog of those crimes, and the best story of that era, remains City for Sale, the 1988 book by Voice reporters Wayne Barrett and the late Jack Newfield which laid responsibility for the permissive atmosphere in which the scandals had festered, at Koch’s door. “He became the mayor who didn’t want to know,” they wrote. “Admiring his own performance, he didn’t notice anyone else’s.”
Like all great waves of corruption, however, the mid ’80s scandals prompted a corresponding push for reforms, in which Koch was an active participant. New York City got a new system of campaign finance, curbing the crass influence of the big donors, and providing public matching donations to those who keep their contributions small. The city’s investigations department got new powers, and the right to appoint inspectors general, instead of having commissioners handpick their own watchdogs. There was even a new form of city government installed when a new charter was approved, wiping out the old Board of Estimate, which had been marked by unsubtle horse-trading among city officials.
Those scandals, as well as those reforms, seem a long time ago these days. The new mayor, overwhelmingly reelected in November, thumbed his nose at the campaign finance system, declaring that only “professional” politicians took the public’s money to run for office. Like Koch in his pre-Manes scandal days, Mike Bloomberg’s reputation is golden.