According to news reporters and the Special Prosecutor’s Office, around 1970 the officials of the Onondaga County Republican Committee entered into a conspiracy with the bureaucrats of the Onondaga County government whereby department heads were to produce contributions to the Republican Committee from all county employees.
Someone at or near the top of each county department would call in every employee to tell them to make a payment. The language that was used was consistent throughout: employees would be told “It’s that time of year again.” “That time of year” came twice each year, once for the clambake and once for the cocktail party. Civil servants would be told how many tickets to buy based on how much they were getting paid. In the District Attorney’s Office—the office charged with prosecuting crime—attorneys made payments based on a percentage of their salaries.
For bosses to sell political fund raising tickets to their employees constituted two crimes: official misconduct and violation of the state civil service law against selling political fund raising tickets in public buildings. Both crimes were misdemeanors and every time Richard Sheeran sold tickets to an employee he committed two. He was indicted on nearly a hundred such misdemeanors. A steady stream of his employees had sworn to the grand jury that they’d bought tickets.
Sheeran also was charged with six felonies based on the sworn testimony of three people whose work he supervised. One of the felonies resulting from my testimony was attempted extortion. As it was explained to me by a lawyer in the prosecutor’s office, if a man leads you down a dark alley, convinces you that he has a gun in his pocket and thereby gets you to give him your money, that’s extortion. He doesn’t have to point the gun at you or show you the gun; he merely has to cause you to believe he has a gun. Richard Sheeran caused me to believe that I would lose my job; he held a weapon that he would use against me. That I did not buy the tickets reduced the charge from extortion to attempted extortion.
Who knew? I mean, who had any idea that a “shakedown” was, under criminal law, extortion? Not me. I would go to work and be told to answer the phone, type the letters, audit the travel vouchers and buy tickets to the clambake. Which one of these doesn’t belong? Your boss tells you to do stuff, you do it. Attempted extortion? Holy shit.
But I was right! I wasn’t supposed to have to pay a political party to keep my job! And now we would see about a little justice for the people—but first, The Syracuse Newspapers. Even after the indictments, even after the arrest of public officials, The Syracuse Newspapers continued to call the Special Prosecutor’s investigation a witch-hunt. They actually increased the vehemence of their attack.
How could this possibly be? How could the newspapers fail to call for truth and justice for the citizens? Why wasn’t there editorial outrage at the abuse of power by those who governed the people? Why weren’t stories being published that reflected the point of view of the victims? How much money had the Republican Committee gotten by illegal means? I was working as a Typist I and the conspirators had decided I should pay the Republicans $200 a year for the privilege. The county had over three thousand employees. Figure the average employee was paying $500 a year. That put $1.5 million in the hands of the Republican Committee! No reporter ever did the math or wrote a story about the Republican Committee’s annual budget.
One day Peter Andreoli told me that they had not found a single cent of the illegally collected money going to a string of pearls for the wife, a ski-mobile or a home in Florida. Every cent went to the Republican Committee. And what did the Republican Committee do with it? Elections are won on the advertising budget and Republicans won every election. County employees were paying to convince their neighbors to vote Republican. The Republican Committee was using the Civil Service employees as their private fund raising source.
Every county department except one coerced its employees to buy tickets. Guido Viseone reported, with some awe, that Dr. William Harris was one of the unsung heroes of the investigation: he was the commissioner of the Health Department and he refused to shake down his employees. And he suffered no apparent loss. The Republican Committee and the leaders of county government huffed and puffed but when it came right down to it, they didn’t retaliate against anyone who refused to participate in the ticket-buying scheme. But apparently only Dr. Harris and I refused. Onondaga County certainly needed a new political hierarchy but it also needed a new citizenry—one with a backbone.
Not all county employees objected to contributing to the Republican Committee. Some did it willingly and others did it eagerly. Many people were Republicans and saw it as supporting the party of their choice. Others saw it as a way to guarantee the security of their jobs or upgrade to better jobs. And the relationship between county employee and county employer was quid pro quo.
When I worked in the Comptroller’s Office, I often was assigned the task of auditing travel vouchers. I did this with a vengeance that would make the taxpayers proud. When auditing the voucher of a man who flew out of Hancock Airport to attend a conference, I called the airport, asked what time the flight left and then disallowed the claim for breakfast. Is it not, truly, people like me whom you want to be watching the government checkbook?
One day I was auditing the travel voucher of a woman who worked in the Department of Social Services. Her job included making home visits and she had claimed reimbursement for mileage to the home sites, which is right and proper to do. However, she also was claiming mileage to McDonald’s for lunch. Every day. When I looked more closely—and checked her home address—I saw that she also was charging the taxpayers for driving to and from work every day. Nice work if you can get it but not while I was on the job. I returned the travel voucher to the head auditor and explained the situation.
The head auditor was a lovely older woman who wore a string of pearls and had a blue rinse in her gray hair. She was a calm woman with a quirky sense of humor despite working in a department that had the ambience of a kindergarten sandbox fight. One day I asked her how she did it—how she kept her cool. With a beatific smile, she replied, “Every day on my lunch hour I go across the circle to the cathedral for Mass.” A dose of God was what it took to get you through a day of working for Onondaga County.