corrupted trivia roundup

A roundup of frauds, flimflams, cheats, sandbags, dupes, bamboozles, deceptions, and corruption…

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1. Gerrymandering is a portmanteau of Jerry Mathers, TV’s “Beaver.” After leaving acting in his teens, Mathers, a math prodigy, studied computer science at Cal Tech, where he developed a computer program, written on punch-cards, to read census and geographic data. Through a complicated equation involving both the golden ratio and Euler’s number, the program could redraw congressional districts to mathematically maximize party advantage.

the dark face of american political corruption
the dark face of american political corruption

Actually, no, gerrymandering is much older. No one is quite sure who actually coined the term, but the name comes from Elbridge Gerry, governor of Massachusetts in 1812; the “mander” part comes because the redrawn district resembled a salamander.

Gerry signed the Declaration of Independence, refused to sign the Constitution, was our nation’s fifth vice president (succeeding George Clinton, D – Funkadelic), and was the guy the French blamed for the diplomatic misstep that caused the XYZ affair (covered in a prior trivia roundup). His name was also pronounced with a hard G, so really we should call it Garymandering—and did, until for some reason the pronunciation shifted in the late 19th century.

Gerry won the governorship of Massachusetts in 1810, and in in 1812 signed a bill to redistrict the state. This produced one particularly twisted district, memorialized in a political cartoon in the Boston Gazette. Political cartoons were uncommon in America at the time; they had been somewhat popular in France and England even in the 18th century. This particular one achieved such fame that the original woodblock engravings are housed in the Library of Congress.

the original gerrymander
the original gerrymander

Gerrymandering tactics include cracking, packing, hijacking, and kidnapping. And if you’re deeply invested in political science, the study of gerrymandering presents some unique challenges: for example, how do you tell if a district is gerrymandered, and to what extent? Some argue that you should measure how much it deviates from a uniform geometric shape (square or circle), but of course this does not account for the geographical constraints imposed by, for example, state boundaries. Another method is to simply compare the district to the previous version, to tell if it’s become more gerrymandered, which forces everything onto a relative scale that equalizes current levels of gerrymandering. And what about if you want to devise an objective method for producing un-gerry-mandered districts? If so, get familiar with perverse nomenclature like the minimum district to convex polygon ratio, the shortest splitline algorithm, and the minimum isoperimetric quotient.


2. How does one take the measure of the man named Harrison Gray Otis? Is it what his underlings say about him? “A damned cuss who doesn’t seem to feel well unless he is in a row with someone.” Is it what Theodore Roosevelt says about him? “A curious instance of the anarchy of soul which comes to a man who in conscienceless fashion deifies property at the expense of human rights.” No, to judge a man we must look to what his peers say about him:

“We have had nothing so vile, nothing so low, nothing so debased, nothing so infamous in San Francisco as Harrison Gray Otis. He sits there in senile dementia with gangrene heart and rotting brain, grimacing at every reform, chattering impotently at all the things that are decent, frothing, fuming, violently gibbering, going down to his grave in snarling infamy. This man Otis is the one blot on the banner of southern California; he is the bar sinister on your escutcheon. My friends, he is the one thing that all Californians look at when, in looking at southern California, they see anything that is disgraceful, depraved, corrupt, crooked, and putrescent—that…that is Harrison Gray Otis.”

When people are describing you as putrescent, you may have taken the wrong path.

Harrison Gray Otis was born in 1837 in Ohio, and after serving in the Civil War, took to journalism. After a brief interlude in the Aleutians, working for the government in the Aleutians to prevent walrus poaching (which, by some accounts, suited him and his physical appearance to the bearded beasts), Otis returned to southern California—then in an almost embryonic state, and took over editorship and presidency of what would become the LA Times, a position he held till his death in 1917. But he made his real mint, and very much earned all that scorn, derision, and bad karma, as part of the shady-as-hell “San Fernando land syndicate.”

the walrussian otis
the walrussian otis

Water was the limiting resource in the growth of Los Angeles in early 20th century. The mayor and water czar devised a plan to run an aqueduct from Owen Valley and provide water to LA. This required them to buy up the water rights from farmers in the valley, who were probably underpaid and definitely told that the aqueduct would only use some of their water (spoiler: they took it all). The public thought the plan was to draw water to the city, but actually the syndicate planned to first route water to fill the aquifer at the San Fernando Valley, which would serve as storage.

Now, this presented a challenge to the would-be water barons. First, to move water outside the city (San Fernando Valley was not in the city limits) would require a ⅔ majority of voters. Second, it would be so expensive as to exceed the city’s debt ceiling.

Defeating this twin obstacle with one fell swoop, the land syndicate—by now including Otis and at least one other prominent Los Angeleno—simply arranged to annex the San Fernando Valley. With the water moving intra-city, they no longer needed voter approval, and by increasing the size of the city they also raised its debt ceiling. Otis’s Times heralded the plan in Otisean florid prose: “The cable that has held the San Fernando Valley vassal for ten centuries to the arid demon, is about to be severed by the magic scimitar of modern engineering skill.”

Thus far, this is standard-brand political machination. What catapults this into your upper echelons of shady dealings was this: take a guess who bought all that cheap, arid San Fernando land before the city annexed and irrigated it, and thus made vast sums off it? That’s right, the land syndicate. This does not even get into the series of dirty tricks they were said to undertake to ensure the plan came off: political horse trading at the federal level, to keep the Bureau of Reclamations off the Owens Valley water, scare headlines in Otis’s Times, vastly understating the available water for the city if the aqueduct weren’t built, even possibly diverting water to induce false droughts and fan hysteria. Truly an A+ effort in the history of American corruption.

I could go on and on here—to the rendering of Owens Valley as an arid, alkaline, lifeless husk, to the many people whose homes or livelihoods were thus destroyed, to the series of sabotage and dynamiting incidents in response to the aqueduct, culminating in a bombing at the LA Times building that, because the bomb went off too soon, ended up killing 20 people and was called “the crime of the century.” The machinations of the aqueduct and the water wars, and the politics of water in the American southwest are notoriously byzantine, undeniably corrupt, and very probably unsustainable. I strongly recommend Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for more. Also, you could rewatch Chinatown, which, when it comes right down to it, is only lightly fictionalized.

Owens Valley, sans water
Owens Valley, sans water


3. I once lauded the CIA’s ability to name things, but I don’t want to shortchange the FBI, who may have a 1950s-style insult comic on payroll.

Let’s start with the example par excellence: Operation Plunder Dome. The sting operation eventually resulted in the felony conviction of Providence mayor Buddy Cianci. Amazingly, that was Cianci’s second felony conviction while in office; he had been mayor from 1974-1984 before being convicted of assault. He then tried to run in the special election meant to replace him, bowing out only after the RI supreme court ruled that “dude, you can’t actually do that.” He ran and was elected again in 1991, serving until being undone in the plunder dome bribery/racketeering scandal.

Then there was Operation Rocky Top, a sting operation targeting bingo games in Tennessee. The scam was this: the games were only legal for charities, so people would set up fake charities, then pay kickbacks to legislators for approving the games. The annual revenue from this exceeded $30 million dollars. In bingo earnings. OH SEVENTY FIVE INDEED. Rocky Top is the state dance of Tennessee; when another sting operation in Tennessee came up, it was called Operation Tennessee Waltz.

Some other great operation names include: Big Coon Dog (misuse of disaster relief funds in Virginia); Boptrot (kickbacks to legislators for horse-racing reforms); Dipscam (diploma mill); Family Secrets (mob-related); and G-Sting (kickbacks to legislators from a San Diego strip club; George Clooney, Robert Deniro, and Joe Pesci were all interviewed as part of the investigation). My personal favorite is Operation Bot Roast, a white-hat hacking project to take down bots and bot herders.


4. The US turns 240 years old this year, and there is a lesson, I think, in how the term “Corrupt Bargain” refers to not one but three separate historical events in that time.

(a) Event 1 was the 1824 presidential election, which produced no electoral college winner. A deadlocked Congress eventually produced John Quincy Adams as president, and it’s believed that Henry Clay, one of the five candidates, threw his weight behind Adams so long as he was named secretary of state. Adams lasted nought but one term, himself undone by corruption and unfettered pork barrel politics.

Andrew Jackson, one of the spurned 1824 candidates, nursed a lifelong hatred of Clay that was not helped by what Jackson considered his corrupt bargain. Jackson defeated Adams in 1828, then Clay in 1832. In the autumn of his years, Jackson was asked if he had any regrets. With a wistful look in his eye, he said “I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” Actual quote.

For what it’s worth, a recent academic paper studied the 1824 election and showed that simple game theory voting could have produced an Adams victory, without any “corrupt bargain” from Clay. Sadly, Andrew Jackson is not around to beat the effete academics who produced this analysis to death with his cane.

(b) Event 2 was just five decades later, when the 1876 election produced a dispute over electoral votes that left the winner up in the hour. A supposedly nonpartisan committee awarded the votes (and the presidency) to Rutherford B. Hayes. He was later referred to as “Rutherfraud.”

(c) Event three was 1976: Gerald R. Ford trips into the presidency, then pardons Nixon in what many assume was a quid pro quo.


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