Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Municipal corruption and the Hopewell inferiority complex

By Mark Dorroh

The announcement in late January that the Hopewell Bureau of Police has begun an investigation and put a number of employees on administrative leave has rocked our community, but some people are going out of their way to make it worse.

Officers we know (none of whom are under suspicion) are complaining, justifiably and off the record, that rank-and-file Hopewell B. of P. employees are getting a little tired of being tarred with the brush of corruption.

Even if charges are eventually brought, those indicted are still innocent until proven otherwise.

But that's no reason our Crank Corps, Nutball Navy, Erroneous Airheads and other assorted malcontents can't prejudge them. Allow me to relate the story of one such pernicious twit who wasted five minutes of my life I'll never get back.

Early Monday morning, while the newsroom was still on deadline, a reader called my desk to inform me that Hopewell was the most corrupt city in the world.

Having lived in Chicago 15 years, I found that a little hard to believe. The old joke about Chicago's political machine motto being "Vote early and often" is, I have reason to know, much closer to truth than fiction. During the years I lived there, so many deceased people voted, Hollywood considered filming "Dawn of the Dead" in Chicago on election day so the producers could blow off the expense of hiring theatrical extras to play the zombies.

Heck, my former member of Congress was Dan "Rosty the Postman" Rostenkowski, the "House Appropriations Committee Chairman For Life." You remember Rosty, right? He's the Chicago Democrat who went down behind several thousand counts of selling for cash the postage stamps he was supposed to be using to send franked mail to constituents. Believe me, I know world-class corruption and Hopewell isn't even in the running. Richmond, maybe. Hopewell? Please.

But this caller had his mind made up. After demonstrating his ignorance on the subject of what constitutes an inordinately corrupt municipality, he demanded to know why The Hopewell News wasn't telling the truth about all this corruption. I gently explained that we were indeed investigating and would publish the truth when we found it. But he insisted we owed our readers an immediate accounting of what was going on here in corrupt old Hopewell.

I foolishly continued to try to explain to this guy even if we'd gotten some off-the-record skinny that makes sense (which we had) we still have to touch base with several independent, trustworthy sources, crosscheck stories for hidden agendas and corroboration, then see if the final result passes the common sense "smell test." I told him, truthfully, that all that stuff takes a while.

At that point it became clear to the caller that I was part of the cover-up. All I can say to that allegation is, if I am covering up something, I'm being horribly underpaid to do it. Here I am, driving a 16-year-old car, wearing 10-year-old shirts and 15-year-old ties, and my primary source of leisure time entertainment is free books and videos from the public library. I always thought corruption paid a lot better, didn't you?

Maybe if I continue to work in this, the world's most corrupt city, I'll one day get the hang of it and earn some real graft. The truth of the matter is, the only ugly thing about this town is the Hopewell Inferiority Complex, handed down through the generations and cherished by so many of its residents. I suppose some of us hate our home town for the same reasons family squabbles sometimes reach an intensity that manifests in lawsuits, lifetime estrangement and even violence. One of the great universal truths about human nature is, we tend to attack those people and things which are closest to us.

Also, I really believe some folks confuse urbanity and sophistication with being cynical and world-weary. They think it's hip to hate the civic institutions which protect and defend them. Their habitual outrage ignores the demonstrable fact that any profession can attract opportunistic predators, even law enforcement.

What many of us don't understand is, compared to the population at large, officers of the court are held to incredibly high standards of behavior; it goes with the job description.

A lawyer friend of mine put it this way: "If somebody outside the legal profession gets caught breaking the law, he faces possible fines and prison time. If I break the law, upon conviction, I automatically lose my right to market the job skills I've spent decades acquiring - permanently reducing my future income prospects - then I have to start my new career, if I can even get anyone to hire me, from scratch."

Are there rogue cops, judges and lawyers? Sure, but it is their very rarity which makes their apprehension such a huge story. And it's a story which must be told with the same absolute commitment to the truth as that which is displayed by cops, lawyers and judges who, 99.9 percent of the time, are far fairer, more honest and on the whole better people than some of us could ever claim to be.

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