AUGUST   2020


Friday, May 31, 2013


I contend that democracy is a caveat emptor proposition, and if more voters realized that going into the voting booth, there would be a lot fewer jaded voters coming out the other end. Allow me to provide an example. In January of 1921, the Committee on Elections of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, chaired by the appropriately named Loyd Makepeace, from Malden, took up the case of challenger John Callahan verses incumbent James Sweeney. The prize in this election was the Eleventh District in Hampden County, comprising sections of the 5th and 7th wards of Holyoke, Massachusetts, where the Irish names of both Sweeney and Callahan fit in well. For sixty years the state legislature, also known as the General Court, had been controlled by the Anglo-Protestant Republican party. The industrial revolution was beginning to change that, but the transition was not proving comfortable for anybody.

Located just north of Springfield, Holyoke (above) was one of the first planned industrial communities in America. The town drew power for her textile industry and 25 paper mills from canals and a falls of the Connecticut River. That year the town's population topped 60,000, the vast majority of them first generation Irish Catholic emigrants. And in 1920 first term state Representative, Democrat James Sweeney had sent out an aggressive campaign mailing to his constituents.
Most of it was pretty standard propaganda. “After serving you honorably and faithfully for the past year”, wrote Representative Sweeny, “I am a candidate for re-election, and seek your consideration at the polls Tuesday, November 2”.  Sweeney went on to take credit for getting state money for a new bridge across the Connecticut River, and for supporting aid for expectant mothers. But then, in bold black type, he turned to “Chamberlain's Sex-Hyiegne and Birth Control” bill.
The proposed law's namesake was Republican State Senator George Dudly Chamberlain. He was, by all accounts, the kind of a man who gave politicians a good name. An accountant, in his spare time he had created a “playground association” in his home town of Springfield, obtaining and constructing safe places for all of Springfield's children to play. He volunteered untold hours at the Boy's Club and the Young Men's Christian Association. He was a deacon of the Episcopal Church. He had recently gotten into politics because he wanted to improve education statewide, and was pushing for free kindergarten classes for all children.. But in the eyes of many Catholic voters, all of those marvelous things were marks against George Chamberlain.
The Catholic Church simply did not trust a Protestant power structure to educate Catholic children. Irish emigrants, with fresh memories of the charnel house the English had turned Ireland into, did not trust a man who could trace his blue blood back to tenth century English nobility, to John Saukerville, the Lord Chamberlain to King Henry I of England. And having tithed to their own Church schools, Irish voters felt put-upon to be taxed again to support the public schools as well. Sound familiar?
It did not matter to the Irish working classes that the bill was actually a compromise, nor did it matter that in section one of the bill the state department of education was instructed to, “...establish minimum rules and regulations...for the practice and education of health education in public schools...This shall include instruction in personal and community health...” In section four the bill required “School Committees in cities and towns...(to) appoint a supervisor of health education and necessary associates who shall...supervise and direct courses of instruction in health and of physical activity”
The bill had been voted down in the house, but James Sweeney warned his constituents that it was likely to come back. This bill meant “compulsory teaching of sex-hygiene and birth control to children, ten and twelve years old, against the parents' wishes....(it) would take the child away from the parent and put them under the direct supervision of the State....(and) would disrupt the morals of your children.”
The mailer ended this way; “My opponent is also a (in italics) sexagenarian, and in my opinion would not be able to serve your district properly. And so I make this personal appeal to your reason,...Yours very truly, Representative James F. Sweeney.” To modern, and disinterested, eyes, the mailing may seem to be crude, but it was effective. The results of the election were 3,497 votes for James F. Sweeney,  and 3, 091 for John A. Callahan, with 214 ballots either blank or unreadable. Sweeney was declared the winner by 399 votes.
Mr. Callahan was outraged. He saw Sweeney's mailing as false and malicious. First, the actual title of Chamberlin's bill had been “To provide Physical Training in the Public Schools and Normal Schools”. It said nothing about birth control, let alone sex.  Most Protestants felt the same way about birth control in 1920 as most Catholics. And secondly, Mr.Callahan felt the use of the term “sexagenarian” was meant to imply to the uneducated and unsophisticated citizens of Holyoke, that Mr. Callahan was some kind of sex fiend, which he was probably not. So, since, under the Massachusetts's Constitution, “The house of representatives shall be the judge of the returns, elections, and qualifications of its own members”, he appealed to the House to over turn the election.
A simple reading of the names on the committee would seem to have given the Republican Callahan the edge. Beside Chairman Makepeace, there was Brimblecom, Rolander, Hale, Whiting, Gradt and Winnett, with barely a hint of Ireland in the bunch. But besides being Protestants all, the members were also, first and foremost, politicians. And on January 27, 1921 the Committee, issued its findings. First it found that since John Callahan was 62 years of age, he was, by definition, a sexagenarian. If the voters were too stupid know that was what the word meant, that was their problem - not the politicians. And as far as the other exaggerated claims made in the circular, the committee decided that to assume the voters had been mislead by the rabble rousing clap trap in Sweeney's mailing would “constitute a denial of the possession of ordinary intelligence on the part of...voters of the Eleventh Hampden District. The committee have therefore come to the conclusion that the election....was the expression of the will of the majority of the voters...(and) thus manifested should prevail. The petitioner is therefore given leave to withdraw” which was a political way of telling the outraged Mr. Callahan to grow up and get on with his life.
The press, of course, turned the entire affair into a farce. The Boston Herald headline read, “Complains He Was Called Sexagenarian – Candidate Says Many Voters Thought It Had to Do With Sex.” A month later the Wall Street Journal got most of the details of the election right, except for the location, which it moved to downtown Boston. Thirty years later, the joke about sexagenarian was about all that remained of the story, and was even adapted to the Pepper-Smather Florida Senate election of 1950.
But this contested 1920 Massachusetts election is not a story about a quasi-maledictive phrase, its about the freedom to be stupid. To put it in more modern terms, if voters, for whatever reason, are dumb enough to elect Michelle Bachmann or Newt Gingrich to public office, that is still a good thing -  because whether a monumental mess is made by the ruling money class or the working class, its the working class who has to clean it up. So it's at least better that  they should be the ones responsible for making the mess.
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Wednesday, May 29, 2013


I hasten to point out that the men who sought shelter at the Inn were not a harmonious quartet of criminal masterminds. It turns out they were not masterminds of any kind. But then, how many people are masters in any line of work? The lead voice in this group was Charles Gibbs, a diminutive thirty-six year old fire plug - and the last pirate in New York City who did not work on Wall Street. His Achilles in crime was the baritone Thomas Wansely, a tall and powerfully built black man too curious by half. The bass was voiced by Robert Dawes, cook and nonentity, a plump man with no criminal record, as of yet. But tenor and ringer was John Brownrigg, who possessed a fatal combination of a greed and a conscious, which caused him to first commit a crime and then to confess it unbidden to a complete stranger.
Perhaps it was the warm food, or the hot rum or perhaps it was the flames of purgatory he saw in the fire place which drove John Brownrigg to draw innkeeper Samuel Leonard aside and spill his tale on that stormy afternoon of November 24, 1830. The four men, explained John, had been crewmen of the small brig Vineland, docked at Vera Cruz, Mexico, loaded with a cargo of cotton bales, and casks of molasses and rum.
Late in the day Thomas Wansely had been ordered by Captain William Thornby to stack a half dozen heavy barrels in the Captain’s quarters. The strain and curiosity drove Wansely to pry open one of the leaden barrels for a peek. Inside he found newly minted Republican silver coins – Mexican pieces of eight. And as the tide pulled the Vineland into the Gulf of Mexico, Wansely shared his discovery with first mate Charles Gibbs.
By Gibb’s figuring the barrels together held today’s equivalent of over one million dollars in untraceable cash. It was untraceable because, without a standardized national currency of their own, Spanish and Mexican coins circulated so commonly in America, that prices were figured as the equivalent in Spanish (and Mexican) currency, to the point that today’s ubiquitous American “$” sign was borrowed from its Spanish inventors.
In the morning, Gibbs and Wansely opened one of the barrels of rum and shared it with Dawes, Brownrigg and the other crewmen. And once they were all well intoxicated, Gibbs told them of the cargo of silver, and confessed that the night before  he had thrown Captain Thornby overboard. With that much money at stake, explained Gibbs, they were now all under suspicion for murder. So, Gibbs suggested, why not share the crime and the silver between them. One crewman balked and joined the captain in the briny deep. The others quickly agreed to become pirates. As the vessel crossed the gulf bound for New York, a second man sobered up and expressed regret. He joined the other two in the cold, heartless sea.
Their doubts thus drowned, on November 23, 1830 the Vineland reached the westernmost barrier island off New York. Its name derives from the Dutch ‘Conyne Eylandt’, meaning Rabbit Island. They anchored in an isolated corner of Jamaica Bay. There, with a nor’easter brewing in the gathering darkness, the four men struggled to lower a skiff and fill it with their burdensome barrels of silver. They then scuttled the Vineland and set her afire. As she sank into the muddy waters of the bay the four men in the low riding skiff set off for shore, at what is today Rockaway Beach.
It was not beach weather. The surf was pounding. A gale was approaching. The landing was a disaster. In the crashing waves the four seamen lost most of their booty, and were able to save just 10% of the coins. Wet, cold and exhausted, soaked by a pounding downpour, the gang of four came to the realization they had not thought things through as well as they thought they had. While Wanesly and Brownrigg stood guard over what was left of their loot, Gibbs and Dawes walked to a tavern Gibbs recalled in the isolated village of Carnarsie.
The tavern was run by the Johnson brothers, John and William. It was the youngest, William, who answered the door that night. He recognized Gibbs and was willing to loan him a horse and wagon for an hour or so. Gibbs explained he had a heavy load to transfer from a boat.
Having thus obtained the tools required, Gibbs and Dawes returned to the beach, and, according to Brownrigg, the four men buried the remaining $5,000 in Mexican silver, marking the spot with a strand of ribbon tied to the saw grass. They then returned to Johnson’s house and Gibbs paid for the rental with a generous bag of new Mexican coins.
The four men were headed for lower Manhattan, where they would claim the ship had been lost in the storm. But their convenient alibi was by now pounding the coast, and after having crossed Coney Creek, the quartet was forced to seek refuge in John Leonard’s Sheepshead Bay Inn, where John Brownrigg spilled his guts.
Leonard was nothing if not decisive. Quietly he gathered his staff and they fell upon the three villains. Well, two of the villains. Gibbs and Dawes were quickly tied to their chairs, but Wanesly broke for the woods, followed by the courageous waiter Robert Greenwood, who was armed with an unloaded flintlock pistol. An hour later Greenwood returned with Wanesly in tow.
The justice of the peace, John Van Dyck, was summoned, and next morning Brownrigg lead the authorities to the buried treasure. Only the treasure was not there.  Under questioning Dawes decided to cooperate, and related the tale of the visit to the Johnson brothers tavern. Under questioning the brothers confirmed the details but, no, they insisted, they knew nothing else. Van Dyck was certain that they did. And Van Dyck was correct.
The instant Gibbs had crossed William Johnson’s palm with the newly minted silver, the mastermind William Gibbs knew that something serious was afoot. Perhaps if the payment had been less generous, or if Gibbs had paid in any other currency, his secret might have remained secret. As it was, 19 year old William immediately woke up his older brother John, and after examining their weary horse’s hooves and finding sand there, the brothers searched the beach. They quickly found the cache of stolen silver and re-stole it. They dragged it inland a few hundred yards, divided and re-buried it in two new caches, one of $40,000 and the second of $16,000. And then they returned home for a hearty breakfast.
JP Van Dyke suspected this, or most of it. But he could prove nothing. And once a beachcomber had discovered Mexican eights rolling in the surf at Rockaway Beach, and was joined by hundreds of others combing the sand, there was no way of proving where the crazy eights had come from, the cache or the surf. Van Dyke could only choke the four birds he still had in his hand, held for now in the Flatbush Jail.
And then something curious happened. William Johnson began to have second thoughts. He approached the insurance company (yes, even in 1830 there were insurance companies), and inquired what they might pay as a reward for the return of some of the silver. The insurance company replied that they would be willing to make a generous settlement which might not leave the brothers filthy rich, but at least they would be free from worry of future legal entanglements. Encouraged, William returned to Rockaway Beach to confirm the security of both of the caches, whereupon he made a most distressing discovery.
The larger cache was gone, as was his older brother John. Had he stolen the silver from William? Well, John was married, so there was John's wife’s incipient criminal mastermindy-ness to take into account.  Clearly John or his wife had reached the conclusion that even though John had not heard opportunity knock, and William had awakened him to it, John was deserving of the larger share of the stolen silver. So he took it. And the 19 year old William Johnson returned the remaining $16,000 in pieces of eight left behind, in exchange for a greatly reduced reward.
On April 22, 1831, on the site that would one day support the Statue of Liberty, criminal masterminds Charles Gibbs and Thomas Wansley climbed the thirteen steps of a scaffold, where they were both hanged by the neck until they were dead. Gibbs had been convicted of piracy, and was the last man hanged for that crime in America - so his death was not entirely without meaning. Wansley died for the crime of murder. Dawes and Brownrigg served short jail terms, and disappeared from history. William Johnson lived in Brooklyn until 1906. He married and produced at least one son and a daughter.
But of the two remaining masterminds, older brother John and his wife, they escaped with today’s equivalent of $800,000 in untraceable cash, and nothing more was ever heard of either of them. But I would very much like to know what became of them, because if, as I suspect,  he or she later turned up dead, then we would know if the percentage of criminal masterminds in this affair was 20% or less - less being the historical average.
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Sunday, May 26, 2013


I present you now with a partial list of the current residents of the original site of the little green house at 1625 K street, now the Commonwealth Building: The National Petroleum Council, The George C. Marshall Institute, The Coalition For Employment Through Exports, AMS Consulting Group, The Environmental Literacy Council, National Foreign Trade Council, The Media Access Project, The American Association of Blacks in Energy, The Center for Renewable Energy and Sustainable Technology, The Heritage Preservation, Biotechnology Industry Organization, The Response Group, National Legal Aid and Defender Association, The Benton Foundation, The National Network for Woman's Employment, The National Organization on Disability, and The Hill, a conservative leaning daily newspaper reporting on events on Capital (or Jenkins) Hill.
“Almost any important Republican who ... says they didn't know me is almost certainly lying.”
Jack Abramoff
On Monday, January 8, 2001, the still 42 year old Jack Abramoff joined the 1,800 lawyers working for the lobby/law fjrm of Greenberg Traurig. The firm boasted that their new Senior Director of Government Affairs had been “deeply involved in the Republican party and conservative movement leadership structures.” Once settled in, Abramoff assembled his “dream team” of lobbyists, including Shawn Vasell, previously an aide to Senator Conrad Burns (R-Mt), Tony Rudy, previously the Chief of Staff for Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Todd Boulanger, previously an aide to Senator Robert Smith (R-NH), Amy Berger, previously an aide to Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV), Padgett Wilson, previously an aide to both Paul Coverdell and Nathan Deal (both R-GA), and Kevin Ring, previously an aide to John Doolittle (R-CA) and John Ashcroft (R-MO). Tommy “The Cork” Corcorhan's pathway to fame and power by selling his experience in working for the people had become a four lane highway to wealth and power for “Team Abramoff”.
“If I read the articles about me, and I didn't know me, I would think I was Satan.”
Jack Abramoff
Over the next two months members of Team Abramoff appeared in White House logs 200 times. Over that same time span Greenberg Traurig went from $1.7 million in billings to $8 million. Over the first three years of the Bush the younger administration, “Casino Jack” himself had 345 meetings with White House staffers, including ten face to face meetings with President Bush's top political adviser, Karl Rove. It was during this time that Jack also acquired the monikers of “The Mayor of Capital Hill” and “Super Lobbyist”.
“All of my political work is driven by philosophical interests, not by a desire to gain wealth.”
Jack Abramoff
If you wanted Team Abramoff as your lobbyist, the fee was $500 an hour. Jack was paid by the Chitimacha Tribe and the Coushatta Tribe, both of Louisiana a total $1,820,000. The Hopi Indians paid him $60,000. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians paid him $1,040,000. The Saginaw Chippewa Tribe paid him $150,000. The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands paid him $600,000. The Samoan Garment Manufacturers Association paid him $160,000. Primedia paid him $440,000. And Voor Huisen Project Management paid him $300,000. Omar Bongo, the President of Gabon, paid Jack $9 million for a meeting with President Bush. He was paid another $1.2 million to arrange a meeting between Bush and the Malaysian Prime Minister. And yet, still, for Jack – just as for Tommy Cocorhan -  it was never enough.
“I have chatted with Ralph (Reed) and we need to get the funding moving on the effort in the 10 congressional districts, ... Please get me a check as soon as possible for $150,000 made payable to American Marketing Inc. This is the company Ralph is using.”
Jack Abramoff (E-mail)
It was inevitable that someone like Jack Abramoff's would come to dominate this new fourth branch of American government – the lobbyists. He was an ignoramus about gourmet food or wine – in fact he did not drink at all. But he had a chameleon's talent for impersonations, and a quick broad sense of humor. Born Jewish, Casino Jack converted to orthodoxy. He carried his affinity for inflexible convictions into every aspect of his life – he was an absolutest in all things. His college roommate described Jack as always “driven to excess”. “He really did not have a malicious bone in his body. But if he sought something, he would not be deterred or impeded in his effort to acquire his goal.”
“Can you smell money?!?!?!”
Jake Abramoff (E-mail)
I present to you now a partial list of the people convicted of corruption in “The Abramoff Scandals”; Jack's business partner Adam Kidan, Bob Ney (R-Ohio), David Safavian (White House staffer), Italia Federici, Lobbyists, Mark Zachares, aide to Don Young (R-Alaska), Michael Scanlon, lobbyist and former aide to Tom Delay (R-Texas), Neil Volz, lobbyist, Roger Stillwell, Interior Department, Steven Griles, Deputy Interior Secretary, Tony Rudy, lobbyist, William Heaton, aide to Bob Ney, and Thomas Hart, aide to Bob Ney.
They realize that spending millions to save billions is just good business.
Jack Abramoff
The crimes of Jack Abramoff had been previously committed by the rich and powerful themselves, ala Mr. Colt, or facilitated by hosts such as Mr. Ward. They have gotten more skilled by following the career path of Tommy Corchoran. Almost half of all retiring members of Congress now see their government service as preparation for a profitable career as a lobbyist. And in the age of corporate America, they may not be mere facilitators, but ideologically proselytes, who are driven to bribe and seduce in search of a cultural holy grail. And since Casino Jack went to jail at the end of March 2006, the situation has only worsened. In 2009 alone, the Center for Responsive Politics records that $3.47 billion – BILLION – was spent on lobbying by the 30,000 registered lobbyists in Washington D.C.
“Only a genius like Abramoff could make money lobbying against an Indian tribe's casino and then turn around and make money defending that tribe against himself. Only a giant like Abramoff would have the guts to use one tribe's casino money to finance a "Focus on the Family" crusade against gambling in order to shut down a rival tribe's casino. Only an artist like Abramoff could suggest to a tribe that it pay him by taking out life insurance policies on its eldest members. Then when the elders dropped off,  they could funnel the insurance money through a private school and into his pockets.”
David Brooks New York Times March 22, 2005
Jack Abramoff was sentenced to 70 months in prison and ordered to pay $22 million in “restitution” to the American Indian tribes he had bilked. To his other clients, corporate, municipal and state governments, he was just the cost of doing business. He finished serving his sentence on December 13, 2010. And at 1625 K street, you can still find some 24,000 square feet of floor space available for rent at just $40 a square foot. The lobbying business on K Street is still green.
You can't beat somebody with nobody.
Jack Abramoff
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