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You Must Be Joe King

Can recent complaints about Murphy's firefighters contract be taken seriously?

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The recent furor over the city's contract with its firefighters is reminiscent a bit of Texas political lore: A businessman gives a political hack $500 in exchange for his vote on an upcoming bill. The pol gladly accepts the money, but votes against the bill anyway. The businessman demands to know what happened, whereupon the hack glibly explains that the other side gave him a thousand bucks for his vote.

 

"But we had a deal!" the businessman protests.

 

"Hey," the lawmaker responds, "you knew I was weak when you gave me the $500."

 

The circumstances in Pittsburgh aren't exactly the same. For one thing, there's more at stake than $500. In the weeks before his closely contested May 2001 primary, Mayor Tom Murphy gave up more than $10 million in contract concessions. And this time, it's the politician wishing for a refund.

 

Recently, firefighters union President Joe King, who negotiated the deal with Murphy, faulted the mayor for agreeing to it. In a public letter, King urged Murphy to resign in light of the city's financial crisis; King also challenged Murphy to "tell the truth about 2001." The truth, King alleged, was that Murphy agreed to the new contract in exchange for the firefighters' political support. "The only condition was to have the contract awarded by arbitration," King wrote, so "other unions [wouldn't know we] agreed to these economic conditions."

 

King was apparently trying to derail a state-appointed financial oversight panel whose reforms might hurt his members. But as you can imagine, politicians were shocked -- shocked -- to hear allegations that a public official might give a powerful interest group special favors before a close election. Soon after King's letter made headlines, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala told reporters that his office was reviewing the matter for potential impropriety.

 

Sadly, the district attorney hasn't always been so anxious to investigate alleged political wrongdoing. As the residents of Kennedy Township know, in the late 1990s Zappala futzed around with allegations of voter fraud for three years, first reporting that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and then, after subsequent investigation turned up some troubling allegations, deciding to recuse himself from an unspecified conflict of interest. (Zappala once served as Kennedy Township's solicitor, and the alleged perpetrator of the fraud is the father of a fellow county row officer, Treasurer John Weinstein.)

 

It's odd that King's letter has drawn so much more attention, considering it says nothing we didn't know three years ago. Voters knew about the deal Murphy had negotiated when they went to the polls in May 2001. Newspaper headlines like "Firefighters' agreement wins votes for Murphy" (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 9) spread the news to even the most casual reader. Administration officials have always denied any quid pro quo, but even Murphy's supporters don't really believe it.

 

King's letter proves that, for all his moral posturing, Murphy isn't much better than the political hacks he rails against. But if mutual back-scratching is a crime, as some Murphy rivals apparently hope, so many politicians are going to be impeached that there won't be anyone left to conduct the impeachments.

 

 Just imagine the crimes Zappala could unearth if he stuck with this newly aggressive approach.

 

Bribery: City Paper has learned of corruption that extends to almost every level of government. Special interests -- ranging from unions to high-powered legal firms -- contribute cash to the re-election campaigns of politicians. In exchange, politicians ensure that these interests are given privileges denied the average citizen. It's a clear money-for-votes transaction, as nefarious as anything Murphy and King might have dreamt up.

 

Fraud: Some politicians exaggerate the economic impact of local development projects -- not to mention their own role in landing the developments. They then use these exaggerated numbers to justify subsidizing the projects with tax money. Such an embezzlement scheme would do credit to Nigerian e-mail scams.

 

Child endangerment: "Baby-kissing" is a widespread campaign practice. The act typically involves removing an infant from a stroller and hoisting him high into the air, posing numerous health hazards to the child. Does tragedy have to strike before we take action?

 

These allegations are just the tip of the iceberg. I've even heard it said that sometimes, politicians in law enforcement weigh political factors in deciding how zealously to go after other elected officials.

 

Of course, usually these escapades escape scrutiny because no one is reckless enough to admit what was going on. In today's political climate you can trade votes for money, and vice versa, so long as you don't say that's what you're doing. The preferred dodge is to praise the virtues of the "public-private partnership" instead.

 

It's not the firefighters' contract itself that drew legal scrutiny -- that's been in place for more than two years. It's not that King parlayed his political clout into a sweetheart deal; everyone does that, or tries to. It's the fact that he all but boasted about it afterward.

 

Neither King nor Murphy is likely to be charged with anything. King now claims that they did nothing wrong, that he never meant to imply otherwise. But to borrow from an old legal saying, you can't unring the bell -- or in this case the fire alarm -- that King has sounded.

 

After all, if you can't trust the people whose votes you buy, who can you trust? A little bit of candor and openness might tear asunder the very foundations of modern American politics.

 

In fact, Joe King may yet accomplish something that all the good-government crusaders in human history have never been able to manage: undermining the political power of special interests. King and Zappala may one day be remembered as the men who finally ended politics as usual.

 

Unless, of course, someone writes a letter about them.

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