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To date, two New York City mayors have left office in disgrace. If newspaper accounts are accurate, a third may soon follow.
The first mayor was Jimmy Walker, a witty, dapper dan who served from 1926 to 1932. Ironically, he was one of the most beloved mayors in the history of New York City, but that didn’t protect him when the roof caved in on his administration. Although he spent many late nights in speakeasies, carousing with chorus girls, New York City thrived during his first term because the city coffers were full.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, so did the city’s finances and it quickly became apparent that he was powerless to do anything to fix it. Soon after, a committee appointed by then-Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt and chaired by Judge Samuel Seabury began looking into corruption within the city criminal justice system. During the two-year investigation, a key witness, Vivian Gordon, was found murdered in Van Cortlandt Park and an infamous judge by the name of Joseph Force Crater went missing, never to be heard from again.
Seabury uncovered widespread corruption in both the courts and the police department. Judges paid Tammany Hall Democrats thousands of dollars for their seats on the bench and then worked with certain police officers to solicit payoffs from innocent victims in exchange for dropping trumped-up charges against them. It was a despicable scheme that netted hundreds of thousands of dollars for the judges and police officers involved.
Seabury then set his sights on the city’s highest elected official, Walker. Among the accusations was that the mayor had accepted $26,000 worth of bonds from a stockbroker, Joseph A. Sisto, who on behalf of his clients invested in a taxicab company. In exchange, Walker formed the Board of Taxicab Control to place regulations on the taxicab industry that limited the number of privately owned taxi cabs allowed to operate in the city, which in turn directly benefited the taxicab company Sisto had purchased for his investors.
At first, Walker made light of the charges and maintained his innocence. When he finally appeared before Seabury, he joked, even going so far as quipping, “Life is just a bowl of Seaburys.”
Apparently, he forgot about the pits cherries have. On Sept. 1, 1932, Walker resigned from office at the behest of Roosevelt, who was running for president and did not want his association with the mayor of New York to become political fodder for his opponent.
Walker maintained his innocence, but Roosevelt struck a deal with Seabury to table the charges in return for the mayor’s resignation. Walker proclaimed he would prove his innocence, but never did. He and his mistress immediately set sail for Europe and did not return for three years. Roosevelt, of course, went on to become president.
William O’Dwyer was the second New York City mayor to resign from office. O’Dwyer was 20 years old when he came to New York in 1910 with just $23 in his pocket. Although he hailed from Ireland, he had spent the two years preceding his arrival studying for the priesthood in Spain.
Once in America, he was determined to make good in his adopted country. After toiling at odd jobs for several years, he became a citizen and a New York City patrolman in 1916. While on the force he pursued a law degree. He left the department in 1923 to practice law. In 1931, he was appointed magistrate by the acting Mayor Joseph McKee, a Democrat, after he replaced Jimmy Walker. While on the bench, O’Dwyer became a well-regarded judge and loyal partyman. In 1939 he was elected Brooklyn district attorney.
He furthered his reputation by going after mobsters associated with “Murder Incorporated,” although he never seemed to net the proverbial big Fish. After losing the mayor’s race to Fiorello La Guardia in 1941, he took a leave of absence to join the Army, rising all the way to brigadier general by war’s end. He returned to New York and won the mayoralty in 1945.
His first term required him to address matters that had been put on the back burner during World War II. His success caused New Yorkers to reward him with a second term. That’s when things began to unravel, and rather quickly. O’Dwyer’s successor in the Brooklyn DA’s office, Miles O’Donald, convened a grand jury to look into the activities of a well-known gambler named Harry Gross. Wiretaps of Gross uncovered a massive network of pay-offs to police officials and public servants. Many of O’Dwyer’s closest associates were mentioned. The police commissioner, the chief inspector and the chief of detectives and 240 other officers resigned.
One officer committed suicide by leaping out a six-floor courtroom window just before he was scheduled to testify about what he knew. Just eight months into his second term, President Harry Truman threw O’Dwyer a lifeline and appointed him ambassador to Mexico.
There he was protected from further inquiries into his possible misconduct because only the president can recall an ambassador. Although O’Dwyer resigned in 1952 so that newly elected President Dwight Eisenhower could name his own envoy, he remained in Mexico until 1960. Truman’s actions, though, were not as altruistic as they might have seemed. New York City was an important Democratic stronghold. It had been lost to Republican Fiorello La Guardia for 12 years after Walker’s demise. Democrats could not afford to lose it again.
That brings us to Mayor Eric Adams’s current situation. There are some intriguing similarities between the three mayors. Both Mayor Walker and Mayor Adams were/are dealing with a fiscal crisis. Nothing stirs up the public’s wrath more than budget cuts to essential services.
Rivals seeking higher office take the opportunity to scrutinize and then criticize the actions of those they seek to replace, in this instance, Adams.
As in O’Dwyer’s case, associates with direct ties to Adams have been alleged to have performed serious misdeeds for which he may have to answer. In addition, Adams is rumored to have been involved in a quid pro quo arrangement with authorities tied to the Turkish Consulate. Walker was accused of a similar arrangement with the investor of a Taxicab company.
Lastly, and most importantly, Adams has publicly gone after the president demanding federal aid to deal with a migrant crisis he is partially responsible for. So far, his pleas have gone unanswered. But the president is facing a tough reelection and is in no mood to be criticized by the mayor of the country’s largest Democratic city — one that practically guarantees him the state’s 28 electoral college votes. He will not put that in jeopardy.
The lesson Adams can take from Walker’s and O’Dwyer’s respective predicaments is that the New York City mayor can be sacrificed in order to keep or get a Democrat elected president.
The Justice Department has a reputation for picking and choosing who it investigates. Adams should be asking himself why his administration is suddenly under scrutiny, unless of course he plans to take a long European vacation or move to a country in South America.
Bernard Whalen is a former NYPD lieutenant and co-author of “The NYPD’s First Fifty Years” and “Case Files of the NYPD.”
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