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There’s a Little Cooper in Us All PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jay Beskin, BT Contributor   
February 2018

But would you say yes to an unsavory opportunity?

TPix_JayBeskin_2-18_1he arrest of Mayor Joy Cooper of Hallandale Beach brings no pleasure to her friends and neighbors in Aventura. There has always been a rivalry of some sorts between the two adjacent municipalities, but it has been conducted in a spirit of comity and collegiality.

Indeed, one might argue that the spirit of Aventura is more soul-mated to Broward than to Miami-Dade. Still, charges like these lead us to reflect on several aspects of governance and law enforcement.

First, we have the question of corruption in the municipal realm and, more broadly, in city and county government. The assumption of American democracy has always been that we prefer to have more decisions made closer to home. It’s better to have things decided on the state level than the federal level, except in extreme incidences, like governors protecting racist practices.

And it’s better at the city and county level than the state level. For education, better still, with the school board in the neighborhood. The expectation is that people closer to the center of the issue are more likely to strike the right balance between self-interest and public interest as stakeholders with “skin in the game.”

But when “skin in the game” becomes “skimmin’ the gain” -- then the democratic pyramid fogs into a mushroom cloud, because it is especially easy to be corrupt among participants in a local culture of graft and grift. As much as you hate to show your worst side to someone close, you can also be more comfortable partnering in crime with a close friend or colleague.

This type of arrest can’t help but make us wonder if local governments all around the country are infected with corruption, or at least all local governments in Florida, or perhaps only local governments in South Florida. Our fondest hope, of course, is that this is an isolated situation that reflects not at all on the practices in neighboring cities and counties. But even if we are optimistic, it is difficult to be sanguine. We need to proceed with an open mind, but with our eyes open as well.

A particularly disturbing element in this story is how it is refracted through the persona of Cooper herself. She’s not a “criminal type” that an FBI profiler would naturally spot. I can’t declare this as a fact, but as someone who served on the city commission of Aventura while she served in that role in Hallandale (before they tacked the “Beach” onto their name), I can share an impression of a person who came to public service motivated by service and the needs of the public.

She didn’t show up on Day One carrying money bags waiting to be filled. If she is guilty, it is because over time the temptation to be “on the take” took a toll. I don’t think she ever went from “no” to “yes”; more likely she went from “no” to “why not?” In this regard, we can all sense we’re witnessing a human tragedy of someone not living up to her own ideals.

There’s a classic Jewish story about a great rabbi who was shown proof that his private secretary was selling access to him for personal profit and that his appointments were being granted to the highest bidders. The rabbi was disturbed, but he refused to fire the man. “I can tell you I picked the most honest man in town for this job,” he said. “If it is so corrupting that he fell from grace, why should I bring a new guy down this path?”

Could it be that our mayoralty and commissioner system in these fast-growth, high-profit construction areas leads even the good guys into pervasive payoffs and underhanded schemes? We should shudder at the thought.

Another area of reflection is the matter of arresting people for crimes of fiction. That is to say, law enforcement rigs up a tempting scenario and then criminalizes those who fall into the trap. We’re all fine with an investigation scenario that goes like this: The FBI receives a tip that a particular bid has been accepted for a municipal project or that a particular license has been granted in a manner that bypassed proper procedure, based on bribery of public officials. The FBI then subpoenas files, interviews witnesses, and surveils suspects until a case is pieced together showing an actual crime has been committed. Those perps don’t earn our sympathy.

However, these entrapment cases, like the Abscam case of my youth and many of the arrests of “terrorism conspirators” in recent years, don’t go like that at all. Instead, the FBI sends some agent undercover to play Mr. Big, who comes around like a perverse Santa Claus with bags full of money for all the naughty boys and girls, if only they’ll do him a little favor with some paperwork that is unaccountably stalled in the bureaucratic pipeline somewhere.

Granted, it gets a bit worse when they’re offering to sell bombs to a couple of goons to blow up synagogues, but at the end of the day, we are apprehending people for crimes they might never have committed otherwise.

Remember, The Sting is a movie about a con. When the FBI does a sting operation, its own verbiage tells us we have a problem. Are we supposed to bull the conners and skin the grafters?

All that we’re proving by this sort of setup is that Citizen Doe hasn’t developed his or her conscience to the point where he or she cannot be tempted into crime. Hey, there is a reason Jews pray “do not bring us to temptation and humiliation” and Christians pray “lead us not into temptation.” Very few of us are so accomplished in the virtues that we are above seduction, so straight that we can’ be led astray. Instead, we work on avoiding situations that might exacerbate our baser impulses.

I pride myself on having been an honest city commissioner, but then again, no one ever walked into my office with an attaché case, snapped open the locks, and flashed me a million dollars in cash. I’d like to believe I’d call the authorities or at least kick the guy out on his ear, but frankly I’m glad I was spared that test of conscience.

Well, one thing we can say for certain. Whether or not Cooper is guilty, whether or not this is valid law enforcement, we should use the occasion to shore up our ethical citizenship, as well as ethical governance. We’re all in this together.

 

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