Review of City for Sale by James Ledbetter
"Today's reformer is tomorrow's hack," Brooklyn boss Meade Esposito used to say.
Esposito had a special knack for making this motto a self-fulfilling prophesy. Surely one of his greatest triumphs was the sell-out he and other New York City machine bosses orchestrated around Ed Koch. When he was elected mayor in 1977 Koch's reputation rested on his antimachine credentials. But by 1982, he was kicking off an ill-fated gubernatorial campaign with a press conference flanked by Democratic party bosses — Bronx boss Stanley Friedman (convicted in 1987 for bribery and racketeering), Queens boss Donald Manes (who committed suicide in 1986 while under investigation), and Esposito (convicted in 1988 for bribing Rep. Mario Biaggi). The reformer had come full circle.
That is the central story of City for Sale, written by Village Voice reporters Jack Newfield — who moved to the New York Daily Next's in mid-1988 — and Wayne Barrett. The book's timing is particularly apt, as it was released during the Bess Myerson trial (which had featured testimony from the mayor himself). And in January yet another city hall patronage scandal began breaking, with revelations that the bosses exposed in this book used a Kochinitiated affirmative action program to place their hacks in key city agencies. With the mayoral primary coming in September, investigative journalists and opportunistic opponents are going to have a field day examining the paper trail of corruption. City for Sale may be the first book to document the corruption in Koch's administration, but it probably won't be the last.
Municipal corruption in New York has a lustrous history. Koch knew exactly how to play this legacy to voters. A liberal congressman from an ultraliberal Manhattan district, Koch had a history of reform that was almost as deep-seated as his ambition. To be elected mayor of the entire city in 1977, however, required several measures designed to distance himself from the image of the goo-goo from Greenwich Village. One way was to parade about with Myerson, the politically connected former Miss America, to thwart rumors that Koch was a homosexual. The second strategy was to publicly support the death penalty, a popular issue with which Koch could needle two of his strongest primary opponents, Bella Abzug and Mario Cuomo.
But the final and most devastating deception was cutting deals with the party machines. Koch's platform was staunchly antimachine. His campaign slogan — "After eight years of charisma and four years of the clubhouse, why not try competence?" — was aimed at incumbent Abraham Beame, a crony of Esposito's who had put the city in financial ruin. Privately, however, Koch knew he could not win without machine support. In a tight New York campaign there is simply no substitute for the logistical aid — petitioning, clubhouse endorsements, palm cards, phone banking — that the machines dispense. This became clearest after the September 1977 primary, in which he and Cuomo finished with the most votes, requiring a runoff election. Koch badly needed the Brooklyn and Bronx votes that only the machine could deliver, but he couldn't afford the negative publicity of being endorsed by a party hack, especially one with reputed mob ties like Esposito's.
So at a Sunday morning breakfast at Esposito's mother's home, Esposito agreed to give Koch secret logistical support in return for access to his administration. Newfield quotes Esposito as later bragging: "I get whatever I fucking want from [Koch]. I told him not to dump our captains, and he said no problem. He promised me access and that he would be a good mayor. . . [Koch media adviser David] Garth didn't want to use my name. . . But everyone knew I was calling the shots." Koch cut a similar deal with Bronx boss Stanley Friedman.
Once Koch took office, funny things began to happen. Machine captains were not fired; in fact many were promoted to high positions in contract-rich agencies. Koch appointed Anthony Ameruso, an Esposito crony, as commissioner of transportation, even though a screening panel Koch personally established found Ameruso unqualified. The Parking Violations Bureau was run on a complex system involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, which went to PVB chief Lester Shafran and to Manes. Friedman held 167,000 shares in a dummy company called Citisource, which received a $22 million contract from the bureau to build hand-held computers for parking meters, even though Citisource had no assets, no employees, and no computer. (A systems analyst who pointed out these facts was told he'd be fired if he didn't recommend Citisource.) When evidence of corrupt activity made it to city hall, it was ignored or suppressed.
Why did Koch, whom not even his most severe critics consider personally corrupt, tolerate the mess around him? Newfield and Barrett argue that he continued to need the machines. Jay Turoff, Koch's head of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, for example, personally supervised the use of more than 30 taxi and car service companies to ferry Koch voters to and from the polls in the 1985 primary, free of charge (a contribution worth an estimated $45,000). The big enchilada, however, was the gubernatorial bid, as Koch believed he wouldn't stand a chance without the county leaders.
All the while the media hailed Koch as a new Fiorello LaGuardia, an almost mythical figure who made the city work by force of personality and commitment. In part this was because Koch had cut his deals with the press as well. In 1977, according to the authors, Koch agreed to Rupert Murdoch's request to place a particular attorney in a future administration in return for the New York Post's endorsement. He made the cover of Time and was discussed as a possible nominee on a presidential ticket. Newfield and Barrett, the skunks at the party that New York's media threw for Koch, are the most logical chroniclers of Koch's decline: while other papers were praising Koch's reign, the Voice kept throwing darts at city hall till they stuck.
Corruption, whether in Watergate or city hall, has the aura of grand conspiracy and high drama, but the nitty gritty details of government-by-graft are in fact quite mundane. Newfield and Barrett do an excellent task of keeping narrative interests in mind. As the sordid mess unravels following Manes's suicide in early 1986, they tell the story through the eyes of columnist Jimmy Breslin and through those of the protagonists. The last chapters give wonderful detail from the trials of the PVB plunderers: Friedman downing glasses of Absolut in a New Haven bar, the tension between defense lawyer Thomas Puccio and prosecutor Rudolph Giuliani, who had long been personal friends. And while most of New York watched the Myerson trial as soap opera, Newfield and Barrett are the first writers to put it in the context of the abuse of power.
Where they are less successful is in spelling out how corruption impairs city government. The epilogue provocatively suggests that the closing of New York's Williamsburg Bridge in 1988 after cracks, were discovered was linked to corruption. According to the authors, Esposito was extorting a bribe from a New Jersey company that made a concrete enhancement product for bridges; but Manes's suicide in January killed the deal. Similarly, the official who oversaw bridge maintenance resigned just before the scandal hit; he was revealed to be a business planner with the principal of an asphalt firm to whom he had given $3.5 million in contracts. The book cries out for more such examples of how graft has affected poverty programs, housing policy, and city services,
In addition, City for Sale has flaws as investigatory journalism. There are no footnotes, no notes on sources, no documentation of any kind. The only attempts to guide a reader are the index and a partial list of interviewees with no indication of who said what, It's fine to protect confidential sources, but many readers will want to know how, for example, a witnessless conversation has come to light, or what documents contain which facts. Furthermore, Newfield's power as kingmaker in New York politics is only slightly less than that of bosses he writes about, and the book has a tendency to dissolve into a press release for a Giuliani mayoral bid. It's a bit unseemly in a book on cronyism.
Still, City for Sale is a convincing indictment of a New York City era and a case study in how systemic corruption undermines democratic principles. If Ed Koch ends up with a different job in January 1990, he — and New York City — will have Newfield and Barrett to thank.