Mob Mentality

The Times’s mafia-and-the-stimulus angle? Whacked.

The New York Times had an interesting story on the stimulus earlier this week. Specifically, on the stimulus and—wait for it—the Mob. Quoting criminal investigators, the argument goes, basically, like this: Everyone wants a piece of the stimulus pie and organized crime is no different, so watch out! Mobsters and government money go together like peas and carrots!

It’s a fun hook that no doubt got many to read beyond the headline, but without any specific examples of stimulus money going to the Mob, it rings hollow—sort of like a preemptive “I told you so” should it later be proven that stimulus package money was used to fund the criminal underworld’s illegal activities.

Here is the real heart of the issue, which doesn’t appear until halfway through the story:

Because the money is being widely dispersed—flowing to federal agencies, then to states and localities and then to contractors and smaller groups—opportunities for fraud abound at a level rarely seen.

Forget the Mob. The point is that stimulus money is at risk of being misused by unscrupulous individuals, period. Billions upon billions in public dollars are flowing into private hands as quickly as the feds can get it out there—making that money vulnerable to fraud, whether it be through organized crime channels, small business owners winning grants they don’t qualify for, or plain old corrupt public officials with their hands in the till. (See Solomon Dwek and the takedown of just about every politician in New Jersey.)

Stimulus malfeasance is an important topic, and certainly deserves to be covered; still, it’s sensational to suggest, as the Times article does, that the Mob has a “taste” for taxpayer dollars. It’s like saying that great white sharks have a taste for human flesh. Okay. I’m scared. Really, the point is that everyone has a taste for free money and that great white sharks are not vegetarians. Big shocker.

The real issue worth flagging, which the Times gets into only after it explores the scintillating Mob-and-moola angle, is the lack of general oversight and transparency in tracking the taxpayer money that has been pumped back into the U.S. economy. Citing recent local government projects bid out to companies with ties to organized crime (construction of the new Yankee Stadium and CitiField, for example), the Times suggests that the government is not equipped to handle oversight of the stimulus bucks—despite $220 million to assist federal inspectors working for the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board.

So what is a journalist’s role in this? How about, rather than speculating on what might happen, reporting on what is happening? Where there are opportunities for fraud, there are opportunities for stories. As the Times’s own recent article on the disbanding of the mafia-ridden Waterfront Commission asked: the Commission was created to watch the waterfront—but who was watching the Commission? No one. Guess what, journalists? That’s your job. Find a stimulus project and investigate the hell out of it. Go.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.