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Poobahs On Parade
July 25, 2005: Hurry hurry to the village green. Spread a blanket, unpack the picnic. The band strikes up-- political poobahs are on parade! Some march off to prison; some march off to campaign; some march off to the golf course, crony clubs in hand. Too many march to a different beat than the constituents they serve.

Ask & Ye Shall Receive?

The word "poobah" popped up in a recent Asbury Park Press commentary piece* by Bob Ingle. Seems the office of New Jersey State Attorney General Peter Harvey mislaid, or accidentally destroyed, a surveillance video tape of a chat between South Jersey political boss and U.S. Bancorp insurance man George Norcross and Anthony Zarillo, a deputy attorney general. Norcross hails from Camden County, in the western part of South Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. In the missing tape, Norcross allegedly asked the junior AG to drop a South Jersey corruption investigation. An aspect of which was the political firing of a municipal attorney in the town of Palmyra. The APP article refers to Norcross as a fund raiser extraordinaire and a political "poobah". A word I haven't heard in ages. But one definitely due a revival. Not to be semiotic or anything, but "poo" and "bah" pretty much sum up how many people feel about their public officials.

In Monmouth County, in the eastern part of South Jersey, 19 pols and players have been indicted or arrested in the last year. Prior to shackle-time, they were poobahs. Several convictions have already ensued and more indictments, plus plenty o' subpoenas, are said to be on the way. Over roughly a decade, a gaggle of public servants from municipal and county levels, consistently sold out Monmouth to whichever developer pressed their flesh with sufficient graft. As usual the amounts seem small in relation to what was bought. Even in this age of rising gas prices pols come cheap. A few hundred thou buys access to multi-million dollar deals. Many of which are taxpayer jacked.

Among the angles played in Monmouth was the affordable housing bait and switch. New Jersey compels its counties to provide a certain amount of affordable housing. Developers step in and agree to build it. But only as a package deal that includes market rate housing plus zoning and density overrides. Yet most of the housing built is luxo. Affordable (as in subsidized) units go to the mayor's mother. Or lover. In Monmouth County this combo of coercive good intentions and good old greed produced extreme over-development and the usual undermining of local democratic process. The latter is more difficult to fix. Even when a crop of crooks go to jail, the seeds have already been sown. Well watered by public money, they often flower in those who follow.

Pop Goes The Weasel

In North Jersey, mid June brought another term for Mayor Dave Roberts of Hoboken. His landslide edge of 1,200 votes cost his campaign roughly one million dollars. In a city of 40,000. About one quarter of which voted. Though Robert's opponent, Carol Marsh, was far outweighed financially in the race (which included an earlier run-off election) the appeal of her message and the passion of her supporters carried her much further than Roberts & crew expected. Hence developers, real estate interests, public contractors and political poobahs had to put their pedal to the metal. State Senator Bernard Kenny (D. Hoboken) whose law firm collected 1.2 million from the city during Roberts' first term in office, allegedly even called forth contributions from poobahs in far-off places. Including South Jersey.

Marsh supporters are largely small property owners and good government types. Property taxed to the max and paying for the infrastructure fallout from over-development. And for what are perceived as the city's sweetheart deals on public contracts. Many Marshites also support an anti pay-to-play ordinance passed by citizen referendum last year. If Marsh had won, it was expected she'd have enforced the ordinance, which limits contributions to Hoboken public officials by those doing business with the city. Though Hoboken is small, its business is immensely profitable. Massive amounts of state and federal funds have flowed into the Manhattan bedroom community for decades, mainly via development projects. When local bar owner Dave Roberts ran for mayor back in 2001, he did so as a reformer. (His city hall predecessor eventually went to jail for pay-to-play.) Roberts promised to stop developer excess. Perhaps his profession should have invited skepticism about his promises. Why would a bar owner want to limit the pool of potential customers?

Though Marsh lost the mayoral election, who and what she represents have become a force to be reckoned with. Poobah eyes across the state are on Hoboken - and its anti pay-to-play ordinance. The New Jersey State Senate's Community and Urban Affairs Committee has reported "favorably" on Senate Bill No.1762. Which would essentially allow municipal attorneys to decide whether a citizen proposed ordinance should be put to a public vote. The stated rationale is to save local governments the cost of possible legal challenges should the ordinance turn out to be contrary to state or federal law. But since when do New Jersey pols care about saving money? Last year Jersey raised taxes more than any other state in the nation. Plus, municipal attorneys serve at the whim of local poobahs (see Palmyra) and can even be full blown poobahs themselves.

Speaking of such, a correspondent from Ohio, when speaking of his attorney, a local pol, always refers to him as "my weasel". Because he believes poobah-istic cronyism trumped client interest when the weasel represented him in court. The same correspondent (I'll call him "Sam") has been following various political scandals unfolding in Ohio. Briefly, in a nutshell:

A) The Bureau of Workers Compensation (BWC) imbroglio. Huge investment fund losses resulted when Tom Noe, a rare coin dealer and bud to Ohio Governor Bob Taft, got BWC into the coin biz. Noe is also a poobah Republican fundraiser. After news broke the BWC coin deal was being investigated, pols rushed to return Noe's favors. Though it's hard for Governor Taft to return his golf trips. Holy Toledo Batman-- you can't call back all those balls! The feds suspect Noe may have disguised contributions to Dubya. The Franklin County prosecutor is looking into gifts received by Taft's X Chief of Staff. While some wonder if Attorney General Jim Petro is just too dang disengaged.

B) Widespread corruption (no!) at Cleveland City Hall. Federal eyes are on the admin of X Mayor Michael White. Allegedly, his X consultant Nate Gray had a big part to play. Though Gray's attorney sez his client is not a bag man no sir, the feds seems to think otherwise. Saying Gray ferried bribes to Mayor White for construction and parking contracts at Cleveland-Hopkins International Airport. Along with other activities.

Sam is sure that if any malfeasance does exist, the perp will turn out not to be a poobah, but a single conniving janitor. Or a veritable Moriarty of a building inspector.

AC 4 AG?
Back in the mid and late 90's Andrew Cuomo was head of HUD. Now he wants to be New York State Attorney General. Since AG Eliot Spitzer will soon be throwing down his Sheriff of Wall Street star and mounting up for his gubernatorial run. According to the 7/9/05 New York Times (Race is on for Attorney General) Cuomo cites his record of "policing ... fraud allegations as Housing and Urban Development Secretary" as a reason why he should be AG. Rivals will also find much to cite in that record. In February 1999 testimony before Congress, former HUD Inspector General Susan Gaffney, claimed Cuomo's HUD "reforms" had depleted the agency's ability to detect abuse in FHA insured home ownership programs in low income neighborhoods.

Cuomo and Gaffney had a long running feud. One which took many an ugly twist and turn. Even if you divide that ugliness down the middle and ascribe equal halves to both parties, the picture that emerges of Cuomo is appalling. Think poobah on an egomaniacal, vindictive bender. Furthermore, Gaffney's 1999 warnings re abuse in FHA insured home ownership programs have been born out by time. Over the past few years, the phenomenal rise in mortgage fraud has been widely acknowledged. Last Autumn, the FBI characterized it as "rampant". Though mortgage fraud involving FHA backed properties in low income neighborhoods is one strain in a cross market epidemic, its social cost is particularly heavy: it rots out low income neighborhoods and betrays taxpayers who think they are bankrolling housing opportunities for the poor.

Cuomo is certainly not the only person who's presided over HUD while FHA mortgage fraud ballooned. But he's the only one running for New York State Attorney General. The potential duo of Governor Eliot "See-No-Medicaid-Fraud" Spitzer** and AG Andrew Cuomo is a shuddersome thought to anyone who'd like to see the state aggressively address mismanagement and public corruption.

On The Other Hand

Good news for Philadelphia! The feds have been so encouraged by the pay-to-play convictions of poobahs tied to the administration of Mayor John Street, that they've decided to keep going and going and going. Matters for further investigation include deals involving the city's insurance contracts plus Philadelphia International Airport. What is it with graft seeking poobahs and airports? When tucked up in bed do they roll toy airplanes over the covers and command tiny armies of plastic bag men?

Finally, Tom Devine at the Bay State Objectivist recently posted a piece on his site about how when twisted pols in Springfield, Massachusetts are faced with political criticism, they often ask "where do you work?". The implication being so we can get you fired. A powerful threat in post industrial places. Bully boy poobahs are not unique to Springfield. As example, a writer from Broome County in upstate New York claims the local atmosphere re political dissent is evocative of Germany in its brownshirt daze. A sentiment echoed by others from the area. Upstate New York in general has a rep for poobah retaliation, as does New Jersey.

Tom Devine also made the point that the more public money gets pumped into private enterprise, the more power pols have to make work place threats real. Another way in which government over reach, in combo with a corrupt impulse in individuals, acts to undermine democracy.

Which is where I came in.

Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff

"When I was sick and lay abed/I had two pillows at my head/And all my toys about me lay/To keep me busy all the day."

The Land of Counterpane, Robert Louis Stevenson

*Harvey on the hot seat again, Bob Ingle, 07/10/05, Asbury Park Press

**As Medicaid Balloons, Watchdog Force Shrinks, Michael Luo & Clifford J. Levy, 07/19/05, New York Times

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Copyright (c) 2005 by Carola Von Hoffmannstahl-Solomonoff. This material may be freely distributed subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License. This license relieves the author of any liability or implication of warranty, grants others permission to use the Content in whole or in part, and insures that the original author will be properly credited when Content is used. It also grants others permission to modify and redistribute the Content if they clearly mark what changes have been made, when they were made, and who made them. Finally, the license insures that if someone else bases a work on this Content, that the resultant work will be made available under the Open Publication License as well.

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