As we were coming out of court the other afternoon, we got a call from one of the nice folks over at the WSJ, asking us what we thought about the Manhattan DA’s new Public Integrity unit. We didn’t even know it had been formed — though we had heard Vance talk about the idea on the campaign trail. The soon-to-be new DA had talked of ideas for a variety of new units, some of which we thought were good ideas (like the Wrongful Convictions unit, which would create office-wide policies while also investigating innocence claims), and some of which we thought were more public-relations than practical (like the Public Integrity unit).
As proposed by Vance, we said to the reporter, the Public Integrity unit didn’t really seem necessary. It was to be a sub-unit of the Rackets Bureau, which has already been investigating and prosecuting public corruption cases with a fair amount of success for many years. Carving out a specialty unit isn’t going to increase the number of cases they get, or improve their success rate, or have any extra effect on corruption beyond the usual. It’s not like this is an area of crime that was being ignored. Far from it.
It’s not going to increase the number of cases coming in, because that has nothing to do with whether there’s a special unit or not. Public corruption cases are hard to come by, because usually the only people who know about the bribery are the ones benefiting from it. And they’re not likely to self-report. The DOI does what it can with the resources it’s got to ferret out a case here and there, but the reality is that (for the most part) law enforcement sort of lucks into these cases.
If you want to have an effect on public corruption, the trick is to either get magical surveillance powers to spot all the bribes going on, or else solve the root of the problem itself. We have so much public corruption in NYC because we have a truly byzantine labyrinth of regulations, rules, laws, permits and procedures that serve as a massive impediment to doing business and getting things done. Name an industry, and we can name any number of stupid rules or procedures in the way. Businesses have a huge incentive to grease the wheels. And the petty functionaries who stand in the way of doing business tend to be very poorly paid (few government workers actually make enough here relative to the cost of living here), so they have a huge incentive to accept money to look the other way. The system is set up to guarantee bribery, not prevent it.
And of course, that’s a huge invitation to organized crime. Which is why the Rackets Bureau is involved in the first place. (Though many of these cases don’t really have an o.c. component these days.)
If you want to have a more noticeable effect on public corruption, the way to do it is systemic change. A new sub-unit of the Rackets Bureau just doesn’t seem like a practical solution, though it may have some public-relations benefit in sending a message that the new DA is indeed focused on this problem.
We said all this and more to the reporter, a nice enough fellow. We’re saying it now, though, because the way it came out (link here) isn’t quite what we were saying — especially after the piece got expanded and revised — and the comments page there won’t let us post a comment to clarify our statements. So we’re saying it here.
That said, there are a couple of ways the new unit could actually be worthwhile. The best way would be to focus in one place those prosecutors with real experience investigating and trying these kinds of cases. Then keep them there and build up a substantial institutional memory, so experience doesn’t evaporate with the fairly high turnover of ADAs who leave to go make enough elsewhere to pay for rent and kids and things. If the ADAs assigned there were to work hand-in-hand with the folks over at DOI, it’s conceivable that there could be improvements to efficiency in doing what they do. An ideal situation might be something analogous to the way the feds deal with FCPA cases — there’s a special unit at the SEC, and in the Fraud Section of the DOJ, which coordinate fairly closely to deal with international bribery. The federal units benefit from that synergy and their institutional memory, developing more consistent policies than if the cases were handled by all and sundry. So that could be a good way to take this new unit.
And, on reading the WSJ piece, we learned not only that the unit was in fact announced that day, but that our former colleague Dan Cort will be heading it up. And we like Dan a lot. He’s smart and fair-minded, and he’s got plenty of high-level experience with this stuff, so he’s an excellent choice to lead the unit.
UPDATE: While in court today, we bumped into Mike Scotto, and learned that he’s just been made the Chief of the Rackets Bureau. For those defense attorneys who haven’t worked opposite him before, let us tell you he’s a great pick for boss there. Culture comes from the top, and with Mike there, we have every reason to expect the highest levels of professionalism and good judgment from his people. He’s down-to-earth, decent, and knows what he’s doing.