Where We Are Now
In a perfect world, all of these processes and systems are equitable, incorruptible, and raises the credibility of our elected officials. In a perfect world funding is distributed to those organizations and programs which serve the people’s needs effectively in ways local government cannot; groups that foster relationships between the needs of the community and the resources of the city. In a perfect world all politicians are pure, noble, dedicated, honest public servants. The problem is you usually only meet those politicians while they’re losing an election to a candidate well funded by special interests. The world isn’t perfect, politicians aren’t perfect, the system isn’t perfect. The discretionary funding system is so easy to manipulate, you’ll be angry at yourself for not devoting yourself to a life of crime sooner.
Imagine for a period of time that you are a corrupt politician. Or a budding corrupt politician. How would you go about laundering money? The concept behind money laundering and embezzlement is actually simpler than you might think. Every year the New York City Council debates budget allocation. How much money goes to parks, how much to schools, infrastructure, how much for this project, how much for that project. It’s what they spend the majority of their time doing. A portion of that budget every year gets sectioned away for discretionary funding. These are funds, which each Councilmember has for their own allocation amongst programs in their respective districts. Usually, ideally, in a perfect world, the funding is meant for local programs, which the citywide budget wouldn’t normally get to. Local senior centers, after school programs, a tree, these sorts of items can and should be funded by a Councilmember’s discretionary funding.
Now, say for example, the funding goes to an organization meant to alleviate unemployment by offering adult career services. You might think that organization needs to undergo some sort of vetting or oversight process. It does not. You might think the people running that organization, employed by your tax dollars, would need to adhere to some sort of vetting or oversight process. They do not. You might think that if an organization is funded by public dollars for years and the people who ran the organization were direct relatives of the Councilmember who funded it and the goals of the organization had never been close to met, this might raise some sort of flag and it might be a shade of red. Can you see where I’m going with this?
There is a church in Staten Island, which recently fell victim to a funding scandal. The bookkeeper, a sweet old church going lady, was arrested for several accounts of embezzlement. What was her secret? Writing herself checks just under the amount which would have required permission from her supervisor. She took just enough to never be noticed for decades and stored it away. Her ultimate downfall wasn’t the clever findings of an employee, just an upgrade in the technology used to store the data, which triggered an alarm. She would have made a great City Councilmember. What corrupt politicians have institutionalized is taking a little money here, a little money there, just enough for no one to notice.
Back to you, the criminal politician. The basic premise of stealing discretionary funding first lies in creating your phony or shell company. These organizations need to serve a dier need in the community, such as unemployment or after school programs or cultural centers. Then you found the organization and you staff it with those you trust and with whom you funnel the money through. They should be close friends, companions, family members. People you keep close to your heart, people who will never turn on you, people who will always have your back. People who, if it came to it, you would sell out to the police at any given moment. You’re a spineless thief after all, remember to stay in character.
Once you have your fully staffed organization, you just have to have them apply for your discretionary funding, make some impassioned speeches about how your community needs the services they provide (ok, they don’t have to be THAT impassioned, but try to get into it) and then funnel the money over to your shell company. The trick next is to not use that money for anything you said it would do, you just keep the money. Maybe the employees make campaign contributions to you, maybe they buy you that boat you’ve always wanted but were too poor to afford as a thank you for founding their organization, or maybe they just hand you a bag of unmarked bills with a dollar sign on the side of it. The choice is yours, Mr. or Mrs. Corrupt Politician. Be creative. Luckily you won’t have to worry all that much because once the money is allocated from the Council budget to the Councilmember and approved, there’s no oversight to its use or effectiveness of the organization. It’s a good faith kind of thing. Like the give a penny take a penny cup. Only with billions of pennies (but only millions of dollars).
How can this be true, you’re probably asking yourself, or asking me through yourself. The problem is that these funds go to so many organizations in such varying degrees, that you would need an entirely new entity just to oversee and ensure the effectiveness of the awarded money. But we’ll get to that later. One key is in the discretionary fund’s allocation from the City budget, because the corruption starts way before it even reaches your corrupt politician hands.
Before you, the greedy politician, even have the chance to ask for your share of the discretionary funding, first you need to make sure you’re in bed with the right politician. There’s really no worse feeling than waking up next to the wrong politician. If you get to extort people into voting and supporting you so you can pay them back with laundered city funds, then you first have to vote and support the New York City Council Speaker. The Speaker is elected internally, by the City Councilmembers, a progress begging for political patronage. In fact if you look up political patronage in the dictionary there’s a footnote: *please see New York City Council Speaker.
The Speaker acts as the deciding vote in the case of a tie, presents the final budget to the Mayor, and allocates the discretionary fund pot amongst the Council. Let that sink in for a moment. Ready? One Councilmember, someone elected in their district, gets to decide on his or her own, how the discretionary money is allocated amongst his or her colleagues. The Councilmember of one district is the sole decider of how much money goes into all 51 districts. Not a team of people. Not a committee. Not an independently elected position. Not an objective and non-political appointee. The Speaker, voted in by one district, one constituency.
How is a Speaker elected? I’ve never been a first hand party to the process, but I can imagine a fair amount of political favors, under and over the table deals, alliances, personal vendettas, political factions and ambitions all play a major role. So it should be no surprise that those Councilmembers who are closer politically to the Speaker get a higher percentage of the pie, than those who call out the Speaker on issues or have a bloody past. The money from the people, intended to serve the people is diluted and tempered with the stench of politics and corruption before it even has the chance to be stolen. If you intend to steal it, make sure you stay close to the Speaker. One Councilmember in particular flew too close to the sun, and after syphoning off city and state funding for decades, finally fell. Enter – Larry Seabrook.