Thursday, October 29, 2015

Journalism and Government Corruption


By Reginald Johnson

                       BRIDGEPORT ---- It was good to see the Connecticut Post recently published a long, front-page story detailing the many crimes of former mayor Joseph P. Ganim during his time running this city in the 1990s, before law enforcement officials finally nailed him and sent him off to prison.

     Ganim --- who was released from jail in 2010 and is now campaigning to be mayor again ---  ran a pay-to-play scheme in City Hall, steering contracts to favored developers, and taking bribes and kickbacks in the process.

  The corruption cost the city dearly, with millions of dollars in public money being either stolen or wasted and opportunities for development and job growth squandered.

 The Ganim years were a big setback for Bridgeport, a one-time industrial powerhouse which has been struggling to remake itself following the exodus of factories like GE, Remington and Westinghouse.

   The Post laid it all out clearly in the October 11th story, when the corruption began,  who the players were, the amounts of money involved, and what happened to them.

  The article, entitled “Legacy of Greed” was a nice piece, authored by veteran reporter Bill Cummings.

   But what the Post didn’t focus on, and is not likely to, is how the corruption went on for many years unnoticed and unchecked.

  Municipal corruption can take place anywhere, it’s not just limited to Bridgeport.  In New England alone, we’ve seen city corruption cases in Danbury, Waterbury and Providence, R.I. in the past several decades.

   But corruption is more likely to get started and flourish where those institutions that are supposed to be ‘minding the store’ are not doing their job. In Bridgeport, as in most cities, the watchdog role falls on the local legislative body, or city council, and on the local newspaper.

Bridgeport City Hall. Voters in Connecticut's largest city will go to the polls Nov. 3 to determine who will be their next mayor.

    The local council and newspaper are the ones that on a steady basis are in a position to monitor what’s going in city hall, how money is being spent, who’s spending it, whether there’s any irregularities, etc.  A local states attorney or police department may occasionally get involved in municipal corruption investigations, but for the most part, they’ve got their hands full handling property crime, street crime and acts of violence.

   In Bridgeport, both the city council and the Post failed to adequately monitor what was going on in the Ganim administration with respect to contracts and financial expenditures.

    Both institutions, you could say, were asleep at the switch when Ganim and his henchmen were playing their games.

   While some members of the council during the Ganim years tried to raise questions about issues related to multi-million dollar contract proposals that came before them, many of them did not. As a result, things like the sewage treatment contracts for the PSG firm pushed by Ganim got approved in the end.

  Federal officials later investigated those contracts, and found that Ganim had been given kickbacks and bribes as part of the deals.

  But the Post --- and this was the only print media in town --- did even less than the council in watching city government. This writer, who was employed as an editor by the Post during the 1990s, had a pretty good view of what was going on in the newsroom in terms of Bridgeport news coverage.

   To put it simply, there wasn’t much of it. During the mid and late 1990s, there literally were only 1-2 reporters actively covering City Hall. This was in a city of 135,000 people, with operating budgets of $100 to $200 million.

   Basically, city reporters hit the highlights, and that was it. Major announcements, key council actions and commission meetings were covered, but not much else. There wasn’t time to do anything in-depth, because the limited resources wouldn’t allow it.

  So a lot of unanswered questions or subjects that deserved to get a second look, didn’t get it.

   A little background here is in order. There hadn’t always been a shortage of reporters at the Post. In 1989, under the old Post Publishing Company, there were about 15-20 reporters covering the city, working for either the Post or the Telegram, which was the morning paper. But that same year, the family that owned the Post decided to sell out to media giant Thomson Corporation of Canada, reportedly for about $240 million.

   Thomson immediately dispatched a lawyer/hatchet man to the Post to begin downsizing. First there were buyouts, the Telegram was shut down and staff was cut by one-third. Staff numbers were further reduced through attrition --- as people left for other jobs, they weren’t replaced.

  City staffing was weakened again when the new management  --- believing that Bridgeport no longer provided a lucrative circulation or advertising base --- moved reporters into more suburban and regional coverage,

  It wasn’t for lack of money that the Post was short on staffing. When I was there, we were told at an annual meeting in the late ‘90s  that the paper was doing well and had made over $2 million in net profit the previous year. Management had the money to hire more; they just didn’t want to.

  The company’s penny-pinching also meant that top editors didn’t want to encourage time-consuming investigative projects. 

 I think some people still on the city staff and others sensed that something was amiss with the Ganim administration, and wanted to investigate certain areas, but didn't get much backing. It seemed that editors at the time felt there just wasn't the time or the personnel to do city investigations, and Bridgeport was longer the focus.

 So things that should have been gotten dug into, like the PSG contract, the delays on a $1 billion harbor development project and Ganim’s continual favoritism of the United Properties firm as a developer (United Properties was owned by Al Lenoci, Sr. and his son Al Lenoci, Jr, who both were later convicted for their role in city corruption) were never investigated by the Post.

    It took some complaints to the FBI and then a wide-ranging investigation by that agency that finally uncovered the morass of corruption that was going on in Bridgeport. When all was said and done, Ganim and ten of his cohorts were indicted, convicted and sent off to the prison for their crimes. Ganim was found guilty of 16 felony counts and spent seven years in prison.

   There’s an obvious lesson in this story for today. A city council and the local media have to hold municipal officials accountable for the job they’re doing. It’s not enough for a local council to just rubberstamp what a mayor wants without asking questions. And it’s not enough for a paper or television station for that matter to just churn out stories about accidents, shootings, announcements by the mayor and votes by boards together with a few light features. There has to be more.

   Cities large and small are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in public money and it’s imperative that that money be used wisely. In Bridgeport alone, between the city budget and Board of Education budget, more than $500 million in public funds are being spent this year. (It should be noted as well, that Bridgeport raises a lot of that money by hitting its residents with one of the highest property tax rates in the nation.)

    There’s a lot of programs and contracts out there and opportunities for not only money to be wasted, but unfortunately, for some money to be stolen.

   A local paper has to hire enough reporters to be able to go out and really follow what municipal officials are up to, how money is being spent, who’s benefiting from contracts and spot any troubling patterns. If red flags pop up, a paper has to respond.

  If they don’t, it’s not journalism.

  I don’t want to hear this talk about how ‘we don’t have money.’ It is true that papers are not as strong as they used to be financially, and some have floundered in recent years. But an awful lot of papers, such as the Post and the Hartford Courant (Tribune Company) are owned by large, diversified corporations. They are making money.

   Hearst Corporation, which now owns the Post, earned $10.3 billion in revenues in 2014, a more than 6 percent advance over the previous year, according to a business article in the New York Post.

  Hearst has the money to hire more reporters and editors at the Connecticut Post. The paper now has --- like the 1990s ---  one or two reporters covering Bridgeport City Hall on a daily basis. That’s not enough, even though the staff that is there is doing a good job. The paper, to its credit, now has an investigative team that from time to time will do regional or Bridgeport stories. But more staff is needed to really follow what’s going on in the city on an active basis.

  Next week Bridgeport will hold municipal elections. Joe Ganim, who now admits his wrongdoing, is trying to make a comeback. He won the Democratic Party nomination in a September primary, and may well win the election. Also running are Republican Enrique Torres and Independents Mary-Jane Foster and Charles Coviello.

  It will be critical that in the years ahead, the local media, principally the Post, closely follow whoever becomes mayor and watch how public money is being spent.

  Bridgeport can’t afford a repeat.