GEORGE MAGAZINE
March 1998
Special Report:
THE 10 MOST CORRUPT CITIES IN AMERICA

NO CITY IS IMMUNE TO CORRUPTION, BUT IN A NATIONWIDE SEARCH CONDUCTED BY THE EDITORS OF GEORGE, WE FOUND TEN STARTLING STORIES OF WHAT HAPPENS WHEN GOVERNMENT IGNORES ITS RESPONSIBILITY TO THE PEOPLE. SOME OF THE AFFLICTED CITIES ARE FAMILIAR; OTHERS, SUPRISINGLY OBSCURE. BUT WHAT THEY HAVE IN COMMON IS THE POTENTIAL FOR REDEMPTION THROUGH THEIR CITIZENS. A WHISTLEBLOWER, AN ACTIVIST, OR EVEN A DETERMINED VOTER HAS THE POWER TO TURN THINGS AROUND.

TEXT BY CRAIG OFFMAN

The politician who steals is worse than a thief. He is a fool," said George W. Plunkitt, a turn-of-the-century New York political boss. "With all the grand opportunities around for the man with a political pull, there’s no excuse for stealin’ a cent."

Some of the public figures you’ll meet in GEORGE’S list of the ten most corrupt cities in the U.S. might have impressed Plunkitt with their brazenness-but not their smarts: They stole, and they got caught. In casting far and wide for a true portrait of corruption, we discovered not only examples of old-fashioned theft from the public till but also instances of "political pull," where government was manipulated to serve a powerful few. We also tracked down examples where the lack of accountability of public officials to citizens—the ultimate failure for any city—was so outrageous as to be, on our view, corrupt.

These ten cities tell stories of public trickery and private greed. While many other places are also plagued by dishonest officials, the corruption in these cities is both glaring and ingrained. The costs, whether economic or psychological, are enormous, leaving residents demoralized and the civic landscape bleak. These Americans deserve better than they got.

But this journey into the dark side is not without hope: In each of these cities, individuals are struggling to clean things up and make their government more responsive. Their efforts, against substantial odds, are a beacon to us all.

BOOMTOWN'S BIG-TIME LANDGRAB
LAS VEGAS, NEV. Population: 258,295
CLAIM TO FAME: MORE CALL GIRLS THAN ATTORNEYS LISTED IN THE LOCAL PHONE BOOK.
"THIS IS GOVERNMENT FOR THE CASINOS, OF THE CASINOS, AND BY THE CASINOS— AND THE CITIZENS BE DAMMED."

During a press conference two years ago, Harry Pappas, a 43-year-otd Las Vegas resident, stuck his index finger to his mother's temple and pretended it was a gun. "That's how the city wants to negotiate. They put a gun of '‘eminent domain' to your head," he said. Eminent domain is a government's legal right to take a citizen's property for public use or if the property is in disrepair. The practice is a way to make room for roads or parks, with the city paying market value for the seized property.

But critics say Las Vegas exploits eminent domain to heIp the powerful casino owners and developers at its citizen’s expense. "This is government for the casinos, of the casinos, and by the casinos - and the citizens be dammed," says former city councilman Steve Miller.

Since the city's redevelopment began a decade ago, Las Vegas has invoked eminent domain laws numerous times, seizing private land and offering what many see as a paltry sum to quiet the former owners. But recently, the city has been a three-time loser in conflicts over down- town tracts: once against Chic Hecht, a former U.S. senator; once against the Ray family, longtime Vegas residents; and now against the Pappases.

The Pappas battle in particular has raised questions about the use of eminent domain and about the enormous imbalance of power in Las Vegas. For more than 40 years, Greek immigrants John and Carol Pappas owned a property on which there was a small shopping center near Fremont Street. As part of an effort in 1993 to revitalize the battered downtown, authorities seized the Pappases' 7,000 square foot property to make way for a parking garage. The car space was needed, officials argued, for the throngs expected to flock to the newest tourist attraction, the Fremont Street Experience, a $70 million walkway that boasted the worlds biggest electric light display.

Within days, the city simply gave the casinos the land, thus privatizing what. was supposed to be for public use. Soon after, bulldozers razed the Pappas property. The family sued. The first judge on the case resigned after he revealed that he had a financial interest in a downtown casino. On the eve of Independence Day 1996, Judge Don Chariez harshly rebuked Las Vegas and its redevelopment agency for breaking the law. The Pappases are now suing Mayor Jan Jones and other officials for constitutional rights violations. 'The cases have already cost the city more than $700,000 in legal fees.

"The city takes the money that would have gone back into the community- schools, parks, hospitals, police, and instead they have given it to the casinos for their development," says former deputy attorney general Chuck Gardner. But officials say the downtown redevelopment plans are crucial to the city's economic health.

Although the slot machines teem with cash, Las Vegas's city coffers are far from flush. The ratio of 1.7 police officers per 1,000 residents is among the lowest in the U.S., while the murder rate is among the highest. "This is an extreme example of a company town. I don't know if there has ever been a situation with so much power concentrated in one industry, says Gardner. "It is government gone berserk."