December 13, 2012; Source: WPVI-TV

Here’s a little example of public philanthropy that smells fishy enough to draw calls for an investigation. A day after his federal indictment for bribery and corruption, Trenton Mayor Tony Mack unveiled a $5,000 bronze bust of President Barack Obama to be displayed in Trenton’s City Hall. Mayor Mack has been in big trouble for a long time. In only a couple of years in office, according to the Star-Ledger, Mack has gone through several business administrators and police directors, has been sued by several whistleblowers, and has watched other top city administrators arrested—as Mack himself was, in September—for corruption and extortion. For these and other events in his term in office, Mack won the Star-Ledger’s “Knucklehead of the Year” award.

Mack contended that the Obama bust was paid for entirely by donations. But according to New Jersey’s The Times, the city itself spent $1,000 on the statue’s granite pedestal. The other $4,000, for the bust itself, came from donors, but City Council President Phyllis Holly-Ward is asking for an investigation into whether city contractors and city employees were pressured to contribute. A mayoral aide, Anthony Roberts, said that it took 14-16 months to raise $4,700, but when asked to explain how the money was raised, he reportedly told the press to send him questions by e-mail, turned, and slammed his office door.

The allegations that people were pressured to donate to the bust are just that: allegations. The allegations are in line with the “pay to play” idea that is unfortunately how the game is played in some city governments; in such an arrangement, one doesn’t get city contracts if one spurns requests from certain city officials for campaign contributions or donations for public events. In all of the focus on federal campaign finance reform, the layers of local pressures on city contractors and city employees are relatively pervasive and generally unmonitored. Who is going to oversee and enforce the law on these donations? In the case of Trenton, would that task fall to the multiple police directors appointed by the mayor and city council?

Corruption and extortion schemes, such as the alleged actions that earned Mayor Tony Mack an indictment, do catch the attention of DAs and prosecutors, but the small scale stuff that envelops city employees and contractors is all too common. Big money corrupts national political campaigns for sure, but if you’ve had any exposure to local government politics, money can corrupt the electoral process there, too. The corruption isn’t necessarily lessened when municipal politicians add a dollop of charitable giving to the mix. —Rick Cohen