The Rochester area has a problem with corruption.
Corruption, both legal and illegal, is the abuse of power for self-interested reasons, including gaining political power or private wealth.
We tend to recognize illegal corruption right away. We know public officials who steal or accept bribes are engaged in corrupt behavior. We understand politicians can’t rig bids for a contract, hire people for no-show jobs, falsify records or use taxpayer resources for campaign work.
We don’t necessarily recognize legal corruption, because it’s common and permitted under the law. Legal corruption is old-fashioned patronage, steering grants and tax breaks to friends, and allowing campaign donors to craft policies. Legal corruption includes politicians conflating themselves with the office and thinking they’re indispensable. Legal corruption happens when politicians run roughshod over democracy—misleading the public and bypassing checks and balances—in the belief they’re morally right and superior. Legal corruption is demonizing critics and the press for getting in the way.
We are beginning to learn about the illegal corruption in our community. We recently witnessed the arrests of an assemblyman and housing authority chairman in separate corruption-related scandals. We saw contractors get nabbed on fraud charges related to a massive school construction project. These investigations and others could yield more arrests of public officials.
As for legal corruption, it’s everywhere.
Unlike New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany, Rochester does not have an elected comptroller or auditor. Perhaps an elected fiscal watchdog would have flagged a $900,000 loan and $100,000 grant to the owners of the Hyatt Regency Rochester for the purpose of outfitting a Morton’s Steakhouse and Starbucks. The owners, Robert Morgan and David Christa, are donors to the mayor’s election campaigns. City Council did not approve this loan and grant to Morgan and Christa. Council members are limited to voting annually to authorize the mayor’s disbursement of federal Community Development Block Grant funds.
Imagine Monroe has awarded tax breaks to one of Robert Morgan’s companies, even after learning Morgan is under scrutiny by the FBI for possible mortgage fraud. Similarly, the Rochester Economic Development Corp. approved a loan to a Morgan project, despite City Council’s rejection of a loan to a different Morgan project because of the investigation. These entities turned a blind eye to ethical questions.
Both forms of corruption—legal and illegal—undermine faith in government and public officials. Corruption breeds the kind of cynicism that leads to low voter turnout and tolerance of bad behavior. Public officials often dismiss small ethical lapses, but that paves the way for worse misconduct with bigger consequences.
What can we do? Without checks and balances within our public institutions, we must turn to the press. As local newsrooms shrink, local governments can more easily operate in the shadows, enabling more corruption to go undetected. We will need new models of journalism to expose corruption and provide important context. That’s the kind of impactful journalism that can prompt reforms.
Otherwise, corruption will continue to thrive—right under our noses.
Rachel Barnhart is a veteran broadcast journalist and co-founder of Rochester for All, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to accountable, transparent and ethical government. A Democrat, she has been a candidate for state Assembly, Rochester mayor and congressional representative in New York’s 25th Congressional District.