I first encountered Big John when he became a confidential source while I was the editor of a newspaper in the middle of a factional, take-no-prisoners battle for power of a housing development in New York. Big John was a senior housing management representative for a state agency and until I met him, I never would have dreamed such titles existed, but they do, much more so than any of us would like to know, though that was Big John’s world. He had grown up in that environment, with his mother working as a building property manager, and Big John’s brother actually having the same title and working at the same state agency as Big John.
I learned a great deal from Big John over the years, all about the sniping, back stabbing, and aggressive moves and counter moves to survive in a large state agency. Our initial relationship as Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, which no one ever discovered, or even had a clue, led to trust, and then ultimately a friendship in which we could tell each other pretty much anything without fear of it slipping out to anyone else. Big John would provide me with the details of what happened at a meeting closed to the public, and then after I was armed with the facts — and Big John was always precise and accurate — it was up to me to use that information to get the appropriate additional sources to confirm what I already knew. It was never that difficult. One thing I’ve learned over the years working as a reporter is people love to talk. Give them an excuse, or an opening, an assurance that you are already in on the confidential information, and they can’t wait to share and spout about this and that, especially about others whom they might not like or have a resentment against.
I’ve known Big John for 17 years and I was stunned when I learned he died of a massive heart attack on Christmas Day. He was only fifty-two, and though he was overweight, and I knew he had high blood pressure, it was still hard for me to believe. I also knew he was under extreme stress, including that caused by surviving a questionable Federal indictment for conspiracy and theft from a federally-funded program, a case in which the charges were subsequently dropped, but not before Big John lost his job and was branded as a crook by most who knew him.
Big John was raised in a political household, in an Italian family which had neighborhood ties to a state senator who had been in office for decades. It was a completely alien environment to the one in which I grew up. My parents were born and raised in Ontario, met at the University of Toronto, and moved to New York City shortly after graduation. I was born in San Francisco, in an Army hospital of all places, because after my father finished medical school, becoming a psychiatrist, he was given a choice of serving in the United States Army for two years or going back north of the border never to return. I was brought up as a member of an independent nuclear family unit, whereas Big John was part of a political team from an early age, a team in which you always had to be prepared for allies, and even close friends, to switch armbands and jump to the side against you, depending on perceived self-interest, which many times was solely based on intimidation and fear, and pleasing those who asserted enough power to crush one with devastating consequences if the required actions weren’t taken.
While I was disgusted by such antics, even if it was merely a case of reality and business as usual, Big John didn’t think twice about the retributions, threats, and retaliation that were all part of a day’s life in the political world of government. I remember Big John telling me that the job of attorneys, for the most part, within governmental entities, was to start with a desired conclusion, and then work to garner facts to support that position, regardless of how preposterous or corrupt such an argument might be. Not many questioned the system, since they were so caught up within it, and besides, appropriate threats from the higher ups in the hierarchy of a state agency, let’s say, could almost always get someone to readily follow the provided script.
As an example, one attorney, a relatively honest, insignificant, don’t rock the boat type, was once asked to sign off on a decision he genuinely had qualms about. He and his wife were settled in a nearby suburb where excellent care and services were available for their autistic son. As the attorney hesitated, word leaked out through the corridors, that there might be an impending transfer of him to Buffalo, a good six hour drive from his current home. The attorney, as expected, signed off on the legal papers within an hour of hearing about the possible transfer.
My father understood human behavior, but more within a family context, and more in line with abstractions rather than the reality of the day-to-day struggles of many, and particularly those caught within a gigantic bureaucratic maze in which any idea of individuality was automatically reduced to an acceptance of others as objects, either benign or hostile, to be dealt with in the appropriate manner. I learned a lot from my father, but I learned more practical concepts and truisms from Big John. My father lived in a world of ideas and concepts; Big John was from the landscape of the foxhole and the streets.
As a kid, I never gave much thought to politics, or government, particularly local government. I was raised with traditional liberal values and most of my father’s friends were psychiatrists and I don’t remember my parents knowing, much less socializing with, anyone who was a Republican. Most of my knowledge of politics came from history books, and college courses, and the ability to name all the Presidents in order since childhood. As a result, I graduated from college with a degree in political science and absolutely no marketable skill, especially since I never once thought about going to law school.
Big John, on the other hand, came from an extended family with roots in a local Republican political club. He learned early on about getting out the vote, and quid pro quo,and that the government was there to serve the people, but also to provide family members, and loyal party followers, with jobs. Big John was a very practical guy — genial, but not to be underestimated in his low regard for human behavior. He expected the worst out of people and told me he was rarely disappointed, whereas, he noted, truthfully, I suppose, that I was misguided in always giving people the benefit of the doubt and expecting the best out of them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I was a better person than Big John, not by any means, it’s just that our life experience was based on different parameters; mine more on abstract values, and Big John more familiar with the realities of power.
I was the editor of a weekly newspaper in a community of 50,000 when the governing body of the place was divided into Hatfield and McCoy factions in a zero sum game to take over the place. The Hatfield side was headed by a tough, former Democratic district leader, and though she never went beyond high school, she was a natural power politician, with an instinctive predilection to emulating Joseph Stalin. I remember reading once that Stalin didn’t give orders, he gave signs, and that’s what this bulldog of a woman did, though it’s difficult for most on the outside, I suspect, to understand why people didn’t just refuse to follow her orders when it led to actions in the shady area of what was legal or ethical. Fear of retribution and losing one’s job is probably the most succinct answer.
The Hatfield woman had a decided advantage, those on her side, four of whom had just been elected with her leading a slate which wiped out four incumbents, were unquestioning amoebas, willing to support and vote for whatever they were told. The McCoy opposition was more diverse, comprised of previously unaligned, relatively decent individuals who truly thought of themselves as representatives of the community, so it was a case of a professional political Hatfield and her clones taking on a group of amateur McCoys.
Big John came into the picture because he was with the state agency charged with overseeing the development which the Hatfield woman wanted to rule with unlimited power, meaning controlling contracts worth millions and millions of dollars. The Hatfield woman came close, but a miscalculation by putting up a deranged, angry figurehead as President of the place resulted in everything unraveling, but not until after a state hearing, another election, and a year of destructive, obsessive, round the clock, political maneuvering.
At the newspaper, I viewed my role as being responsible for publishing straight stories, despite knowing that though there may indeed be two sides to a story, sometimes one side is wrong. Perhaps because I never took a journalism course, I was not guilty of advocacy journalism, I never thought of myself as part of the story I was reporting. It was tempting, though, since the Hatfield woman did everything she could to have me fired. Objective articles in her view were the same thing as betrayal. She wanted, threatened and demanded, a pro-Hatfield approach to every article, with the McCoys smeared and attacked everywhere, all the time.
Some thought Big John was close with the Hatfield woman, which, of course, wasn’t true, but I could see how it appeared that way because he talked with her quite frequently. Big John admired the Hatfield woman, though he knew she was a thug, and that was one of the reasons he was impressed with her, impressed with the way she so ruthlessly wielded power and always kept her people in line.
Big John and I worked well together, but we really did have quite different world views. He once told me, “Money’s the way they keep score in this country, so that’s the way you’re supposed to play the game.”
Ironically, I think one of the reasons I was successful as a reporter was because I didn’t think that way, though consciously I’m not sure I was aware of that for a long time since it was not part of my thought process in the way I viewed the world and human behavior. In fact, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, I was once offered a bribe and didn’t know it until it was explained to me by a local politician after the attempted transaction took place, a transaction I completely failed to grasp.
Another time, a contractor who was charged with bribery rushed into my office the day articles about his indictment for allegedly accepting kickbacks were published in two daily newspapers. He went to great lengths to enlighten me on the difference between a gratuity and a bribe, asserting that a bribe was money given to get someone to do something, whereas a gratuity was like a tip, money given in appreciation of a service which had been delivered, and that’s what the contractor was caught doing on the hidden law enforcement video, simply announcing he was going to pay some money in appreciation for being awarded a contract.
In the final analysis, I guess I learned that Big John, like most people, had different layers and compartments in his life which, no matter how close I felt with him, I had no idea about. I was amazed when he was indicted and arrested. I was also amazed to learn that not only was Big John married, but his wife was indicted as well. And finally, I was surprised that Big John would get nailed for making what seemed an improbable mistake, given his knowledge of the housing regulations in the sphere of government assisted housing.
Simply put, Big John was previously a property manager of an apartment building where his future wife and her child were living in government assisted housing. Big John subsequently moved on to his job with the housing agency, which was where he worked when I first met him, but according to the indictment, he had allegedly gotten married and lived with his wife in the government assisted housing without disclosing this fact.
What triggered the investigation, and subsequent indictment, was a mortgage application Big John filled out when he and his wife bought a home, and he listed additional income generated by her which was in violation of the minimum amount required to receive housing assistance from the federal government and immediately red flags were raised, especially given the fact that Big John, her spouse, was earning a salary significantly higher than anyone living in such housing.
The U.S. attorney in charge stated, “This case exposes a housing official who is charged with abusing a federal program designed to help low-income families with their family needs.”
Could this really be the Big John I had worked with for so many years?
According to the U.S. Attorney, this kind of corruption harms families who rely on federal programs for affordable housing, and the taxpayers who fund such programs.
In short order, Big John lost his job, and was relegated to isolation while he waged a long legal battle, with almost everyone he knew no longer talking to him. He called me frequently during the ordeal, but never admitted to being guilty of anything, and I never pushed it. In a vague way, he intimated it was a case of vindictive scapegoating of him for political reasons, but if I asked the appropriate questions, I was pretty certain that that particular story line would not hold up.
I will not pretend to understand how legal machinations work themselves out, but all charges against Big John were eventually dropped, and all charges but one were dismissed against his wife. I don’t know how or why, but Big John’s wife was sent to jail before trial, though she was released some three months later, and that was the end of it, except that Big John was desperate for money to pay his mortgage, not to mention to pay for day to day living. He also now had a wife who blamed him for the fact she spent time in jail, though on a positive note, Big John did take good care of his wife’s young daughter, making sure she got to school on time, ate regularly and properly, and didn’t stay up too late at night.
Once the charges were dropped, Big John called me several times, upset because when one typed his name in a search engine on the Internet, the press release announcing his indictment would pop up. Even though the charges were over six years old, the press release still appeared making it look as if Big John was still under indictment. It was a recurring annoyance for Big John, and sure enough, when I typed in his name searching for his obituary, the information I was seeking never came up, but the news about his indictment did, though, of course, I remember my friendship with Big John for much more than that.