Crooks In The Palace: A Culture Of Corruption At City Hall
A couple more convictions and it really will be more convenient to hold the Milwaukee Common Council Alumni Picnic at the local U.S. Probation Office. At least people will know how to get there without asking directions.
It should really come as a surprise to no one that "Thug Mike" McGee was using his position as an elected official to extort money hand over fist from anybody and everybody he could. McGee was a crook - pure and simple.
At this point though, what is both surprising and more than a little disappointing is the fact that members of the Common Council not under indictment have apparently learned nothing from the McGee prosecution.
As testified to at trial, McGee was able to thrive based on the concept of "Aldermanic privilege". This is the idea that an individual alderman will not be questioned by his peers when it comes to licensing decisions within that alderman's district. This unwritten practice allowed McGee to extort money from businesses in his district - because the businesses knew that they would get no help from the Common Council as a whole should they try to bypass McGee.
Aldermanic privilege does not exist because his colleagues wanted to allow McGee to run wild. However, each alderman enjoys having control over what goes on in his district. Therefore if someone had started questioning McGee's decisions, they would have undoubtedly found their decisions questioned as well.
The culture of corruption that permeates Milwaukee City Hall has now resulted in four Milwaukee Aldermen being convicted of Federal crimes within the past five years. Unfortunately, rather than pledging to clean things up, Common Council President Willie Hines appears dead set on staking out his position as chief enabler.
Today, in a truly breath-taking statement issued in the wake of the McGee conviction, Hines denied the existence of Aldermanic privilege. In a separate letter to fellow Alderman James Bohl, Hines went as far as to chastize Bohl (the Chairman of the Council's License Committee) for even acknowledging the existence of the privilege during Bohl's testimony under oath at the McGee trial.
Of course, Alderman Bohl was under oath when he testified in Federal court. Alderman Hines does not face the penalty of perjury for anything he may say in his public statements!
I have no doubt that Hines can cite anecdotal evidence of an occasion or two where the Common Council overruled the wishes of an individual alderman when it came to a licensing matter within that alderman's district. My guess though is that, as a general rule, these cases are very few and far between. I also suspect that most such cases involve extenuating circumstances which render them way outside the norm.
Recognizing the problem, Mayor Barrett has wisely called on the Common Council to review the way licenses are granted - including possibly employing an independent commission. This would certainly be refreshing.
However, any change in the status quo would reduce the clout of an individual alderman within his own district. At a very minimum, this diminished power would make it harder for an alderman to extract legal campaign contributions from licensees dependent on the alderman's support.
As such, since lots of money is involved, don't look for the members of the Common Council to voluntarily do too much to change the culture of corruption that pervades City Hall - unless there is either public pressure or a lot more indictments.
Disappointing as it may be, don't be surprised if the people in power continue to make it easy for the crooks among them to run amuk in the palace. They've just got too much invested in the present system to change.
When I think about it though, I guess there might be worse places for an alumni picnic than the waiting area outside the U.S. Probation Office. It is, as I recall from my days as a prosecutor, a pretty big room.