STUMP » Articles » NY Corruption: Hochul, Benjamin, and Chester A. Arthur -- Can You Tell the Difference? » 5 July 2022, 21:13

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NY Corruption: Hochul, Benjamin, and Chester A. Arthur -- Can You Tell the Difference?  


5 July 2022, 21:13

Hochul: Albany’s business as usual with Hochul continuing the pay-to-play corruption

The Times Union’s Bragg has performed a remarkable public service, illuminating Albany influence-peddling at the retail level, and underscoring the ethics deficit that has informed Kathy Hochul’s Albany tenure.

She was a second-tier player in Western New York when Andrew Cuomo — the prince of Albany pay-to-play — picked her for lieutenant governor in 2014. Whereupon two things swiftly happened: Her husband Bill, a former federal prosecutor with no obvious relevant experience, was named general counsel to Buffalo-based casino-entertainment giant Delaware North — and Delaware North began lobbying the lieutenant governor’s office.

Subsequently, Hochul engineered an $850 million taxpayer-funded cash bath for a pro football stadium in Buffalo — a deal from which, serendipitously or otherwise, Delaware North stands to make a bundle as the stadium’s concessions holder.

None of this appears to have been illegal, so perhaps it’s just further evidence of the Hochul administration aiming to serve — whomever.

Benjamin: Disgraced ex-Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin appears in court as trial date set

Disgraced ex-Lt. Gov. Brian Benjamin appeared in Manhattan federal court Thursday as a judge set his tentative trial date on bribery charges for early next year.

Benjamin — who was indicted last month on the conspiracy charges tied to an alleged campaign finance scheme — didn’t speak during the brief hearing.

His attorney Barry Berke said they will move to dismiss the indictment, which he claimed was part of the most aggressive political corruption case ever pursued by the feds.

Berke continued that the charges against Benjamin were brought in a “speaking indictment,” claiming prosecutors in the Southern District of New York spun a narrative about his client but did not clearly show a crime had been committed.

Benjamin, 45, is accused of funneling phony campaign contributions to his unsuccessful city comptroller campaign back when he was a state senator.

Prosecutors allege Benjamin steered a $50,000 state-funded grant to a Harlem real estate developer, who in turn bundled illegal campaign contributions to the Democrat’s failed 2019 bid for city comptroller.

Chester A. Arthur: the official White House website profile of the 21st president of the U.S.

President Grant in 1871 appointed him Collector of the Port of New York. Arthur effectively marshalled the thousand Customs House employees under his supervision on behalf of Roscoe Conkling’s Stalwart Republican machine.

Honorable in his personal life and his public career, Arthur nevertheless was a firm believer in the spoils system when it was coming under vehement attack from reformers. He insisted upon honest administration of the Customs House, but staffed it with more employees than it needed, retaining them for their merit as party workers rather than as Government officials.

Well, Hochul so far has stayed on the windy side of the law, and Arthur himself did keep it legal, but was removed from his office in the Customs House when Rutherford B. Hayes (also a Republican, brought in after the widespread corrupt Republican machine was exposed during the Grant administration) decided to do a little clean-up.

Benjamin may be able to beat the rap, because, after all, everybody else was doing it.

He can point to Hochul, after all. She and her folks have been doing much bigger deals, and also the smaller ones he’s been accused of. Nobody has indicted her. Why should he be convicted for bribery when everybody is on the make? We expect those who get favors to be big donors. It’s not illegal!

A little dose of history

By the way, I recommend the book The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur by Scott S. Greenberger. I finished the audiobook this morning, and the book itself is only 300 pages.

I will admit, the depth of my knowledge on Arthur before reading this book was a gag on Futurama and that he became President due to James Garfield’s assassination.

But let me just focus on the bit that relates to this post: he was fully embedded in the Republican political machine in New York state. He got the cushiest position in NYC in the federal government, in the Customs House, but in many ways he was fairer than those who came before him. The “point” of the Customs House was to milk those who imported through NYC. But the way people before would be unfair was that goods would “disappear” in the house (that is, it would get stolen and would just be sold for the cash), or be delayed in processing. Or they would mis-assess the amount of goods and over-tax the goods. Arthur cut down on that crap.


He did keep the spoils system going. He hired the picked men. And he required them to do fundraising for the Republican party, to caucus for specific candidates, and, most importantly, to “donate” a specific amount of their salaries to the party. This was explicitly expected. And they were expected to do party work while officially on the job.

Not all Republican party politicians were happy with this — factions within the party popped up. The faction Arthur was in were known as the “Stalwarts”, led by Senator Roscoe Conkling of NY.

In the Republican nominating convention of 1880, a reformer named James Garfield was nominated, and in coalition politics, they got Arthur nominated as VP. They won the election.

Conkling thought Arthur’s connection would get him and their buddies a bunch of goodies. That did not occur. The Stalwarts were pissed and were in a huff as it was obvious that Garfield intended to pursue a reform platform.

Well, Garfield didn’t get much time to pursue much. He was shot by a deranged Charles Guiteau. The one aspect of Guiteau’s derangement I had heard of before was that he had thought he was owed an important patronage position, like being the ambassador to France. What I didn’t know was that Guiteau had identified himself with the Stalwarts and had decided that it would be better if Arthur was president, and so he was going to kill Garfield not only for revenge for not getting a plum job, but also to put Arthur on top and to supposedly heal the country.

As I said, the guy was a nut.

Anyway, Arthur did know about the guy’s derangement after the fact (because he was told), and he realized people would blame him. And some people did blame him.

Being the president did change Arthur a little. It took a while, but he did start changing the spoils system a little. The legislation he used to help block, which would make illegal many things still illegal today:

- federal employees doing party business on their work time
- forcing federal employees to donate to political parties to keep their jobs (though….)

And started a civil service reform so that people would get positions via competitive exam instead of via personal connection.

However, one objection was that there would be too high a barrier, in that it would mainly be college men who would get the key positions… (college education being far less common back then, of course, but a similar critique would be requiring a Harvard degree… hmmm….)

There are some colorful characters who show up in the book, such as the philandering Conkling himself, who outlived Arthur, and both men are just as forgotten, which is actually just as well.

Looking to the past to get ideas for now

The best reason to read this history is that this tale of the Gilded Age has many echoes today. With the distance of 140 and more, the specific situations of the 1870s and 1880s of post-Civil War New York City will be alien enough to be impersonal. Without the emotional reaction too many people have to political situations of today, many will be able to dispassionately analyze the coalitions and how they did or did not solve their problems.

We have a very different civil service situation today because of changes that started then. While Chester A. Arthur was no saint, he helped get a process started that may help us think through ways we may tell current politicians to stop whatever shenanigans they’re up to now.

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