corrupted trivia roundup

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

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1. The term “gerrymandering” is a portmanteau based on Jerry Mathers, TV’s Beaver. After leaving acting, Mathers, a math prodigy, studied computer science at Cal Tech, where he developed a computer program written on punch-cards that 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, not really: 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 first 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—not that George Clinton), and was the guy the French blamed for the diplomatic misstep that caused the XYZ affair, as covered in a prior roundup. His name was also pronounced with a hard G, so really we should call it Garymandering—and did, until 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; this 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 and or hyper-specific wonkery, you might be interested to know that the study of gerrymandering is actually quite complicated, for one simple reason: how do you tell if or how much a district is gerrymandered? A simple question with no perfect answer. Measuring how much the district deviates from a uniform geometric shape is one option, but that does not account for geographical constraints like state/county lines or rivers and mountains. Another approach is to compare the district to the previous version. This works to tell if a district has become more gerrymandered, but forces everything onto a comparative scale. And what if you want to device an objective method for producing fair, un-gerrymandered districts? Get familiar with perverse nomenclature like the minimum district to convex polygon ratio, the shortest splitline algorithm, and the minimum isoperimetric quotient.

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2. How does one take the measure of 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, 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.”

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 to prevent walrus poaching—which was fitting, given that he looked like one—Otis returned to southern California and took over editorship and presidency of what would become the LA Times, a position he held until his death in 1917. But he made his real mint, and 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, which you can tell because “water czar” was a government position. In the early 20th century, the mayor and water czar developed a plan to construct an aqueduct, providing water to LA from nearby Owens Valley. The plan required them to buy water rights from the farmers who lived in the valley, who were underpaid and told the aqueduct would only reroute some of the water (of course, they took it all). 

As initially pitched, the plan was to draw water directly to the city, but the syndicate had a different idea: route water to the San Fernando Valley aquifer, outside city limits, to serve as storage. The hitch in this plan was that moving water outside the city would require a referendum earning the support of 2/3 of voters. Second, it would be so expensive as to exceed the city’s debt ceiling. 

Defeating the twin obstacle with one underhanded swoop, the syndicate—by now including Otis—arranged to annex the San Fernando Valley. With the valley now part of the town, the water would only be moving within city limits, eliminating the need for voter approval and worries about the debt ceiling. The 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.”

This is relatively standard political machination, so far. But why did they want to move the water to the San Fernando Valley? The answer to that question catapults this into your upper echelons of shady dealings: guess who bought up all that cheap, vacant, arid San Fernando land before the city annexed and irrigated it? That’s right: the land syndicate. This is already unimaginably corrupt, and I haven’t even gotten into the dirty tricks they pulled to ensure their plan succeeded: horse trading at the federal level (to keep the Bureau of Reclamations away from the Owens Valley water), scare headlines in the Times, vastly understating how much water was available if the aqueduct weren’t built, possibly even diverting water to induce false droughts and fan hysteria. 

I could go on—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 and land grab, 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 entirely unsustainable. I strongly recommend Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert for more. Also, you could rewatch Chinatown, which is only barely fictionalized.

Owens Valley, sans water
Owens Valley, sans water

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

Let’s start with the example par excellence: Operation Plunder Dome, a sting operation resulting 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 “c’mon 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.

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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 events in that time.

(a) Event 1 was the 1824 presidential election, which produced no electoral college winner. A deadlocked Congress eventually voted John Quincy Adams as president, and it’s believed that Henry Clay, one of the five candidates under consideration, threw his weight behind Adams in trade for being named secretary of state—this being the eponymous corrupt bargain that produced an Adams presidency. Adams lasted naught but one term, himself undone by corruption and unfettered pork barrel politics.

As one of the spurned 1824 candidates, Andrew Jackson nursed a lifelong hatred of Clay which turned to white-hot rage in the wake of the bargain. Jackson went on to defeat Adams in the election of 1828, and Clay himself in 1832. Later, in the autumn of his years, the ill-tempered and elephant-memoried Jackson was asked if he had any regrets. He stroked his chin for a few seconds with a wistful look in his eye, then said “I didn’t shoot Henry Clay and I didn’t hang John C. Calhoun.” He actually said that, and John C. Calhoun was actually his vice president.

A recent academic paper showed that simple game theory voting could have produced an Adams victory in 1824, without any corrupt bargain from Clay. If Andrew Jackson were still alive, he would find the effete intellectuals who produced that study and beat them to death with his cane, before annexing their office building and challenging the dean to a duel, only to then spot his own visage on a $20 bill, become delirious, hack up blood from the musket ball lodged his lung, and immediately die of dropsy.

(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 air. 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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