Part 1 of a 5-Part Series on the Lack of Accountability in Government in Mount Vernon
A lot has happened since I last sat down to write an article like this. It is important that we take time to critically look at topics, particularly ones that impact our lives and our institutions. In this series, we’re going to tackle the lack of accountability in Mount Vernon’s government and the different ways that affects our lives using real-world examples.
Let’s start with the one that’s grabbing the headlines right now: the sentencing of former Mount Vernon Corporation Counsel Lawrence Porcari to prison for participating in a criminal scheme to loot the Water Department of money and divert that money to things unrelated to the department. How this scheme played out and how Porcari managed to pull it off should be a lesson in how the lack of accountability in government costs us dearly.
When Officer Derek Chauvin was kneeling on George Floyd’s neck in Minneapolis, there were three other police officers standing around, watching. When it came time to make arrests, Chauvin certainly got the lion’s share of the charges, but the officers who stood idle while it happened were arrested also and rightly so. They will face justice for their part in a crime that has torn apart our communities and, maybe, our nation. In the world of criminal justice, those three officers are charged as accomplices because they aided and abetted Chauvin in committing his crime. How did they help? By doing nothing to stop him.
Let’s apply that same concept to Porcari and his crimes. Let’s also ask why the result is so different.
For those of you who haven’t been keeping up on the story, I’ll give you a quick recap. Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a story in this paper about Mount Vernon’s Water Department being used as a “slush fund” by the Mayor’s office and about how they were using money collected from increased water rents to pay for all sorts of things they couldn’t get passed by the Board of Estimates or the City Council. I even took the Water Department to court to stop them from doing that.
Everyone, from the top down swore, with hands on Bibles, that nothing of the sort was happening, there was no “slush fund,” and everything they spent money on was related to the Water Department. Don’t take my word for it. You can go look at the court filings yourself. But I’ll give you one example: in our petition, we alleged the Water Department improperly spent “funds on activities and expenses unrelated to its mandates from the City of Mount Vernon, in either their official or individual capacities and either independently or at the direction of third parties, including, but not limited to the Mayor of the City of Mount Vernon.” In their answer to our petition, they denied under penalty of perjury that the entire allegation was untrue.
Mayor Thomas called me all sorts of names at the time. In Black Westchester, he said, “Master fabricator Wallace distorts anything to fit his fake news…”. People accused me of playing politics. I couldn’t even get the City Council to agree to join me in the lawsuit. Everyone ran for the hills or issued blanket denials when I exposed this scheme.
I was Mayor for a few months after Mayor Thomas forfeited his office by pleading guilty to crimes involving his campaign fund, crimes which Porcari used Water Department money to fund a legal defense. I fired Porcari. I cleaned up the Water Department. I reduced the water rates. I went after those law firms that got money from the Water Department and even got some of it back before I left office. Mount Vernon got another new Mayor, and she promptly circled the wagons and surrounded herself with many of the same cast of characters as the last one.
During Porcari’s trial, Ben Marable, who was the head of the Water Department, testified under oath after denying everything during my case against him and his department, the Water Department actually spent money on LOTS of things unrelated to water, including: party tent rentals for the Recreation Department, TVs for the City, equipment for the Police Department, funds for the Planning Commissioner and the Urban Renewal Agency, an administrative assistant for the Building Department, outside lawyers for the Law Department, and a legal defense team for Mayor Thomas and lots more.
What made me think about George Floyd was a statement made by the judge at Porcari’s sentencing, where he said that he was giving Porcari a reduced sentence (the minimum, in fact) because, among other reasons, he “received none of the stolen money himself.” No one else was charged with this scheme, not even the people who did receive the money. Not the people who stood around and watched it happen, even if they didn’t get the money. Not one other indictment.
In essence, Porcari was convicted of “corrupting the government” and no one in that government who worked side-by-side with him was “corrupted” by him?! That’s a ridiculous result. Its implications are dangerous. If we’re not going to go after the people who sat idle and watched Porcari steal our money, then why are we holding those other three officers in the Floyd case?
Police brutality and stealing from Mount Vernon’s Water Department are based on the exact same form of wrongdoing: abuse of power. Those cops in Minneapolis used the power they had over George Floyd to watch him die. Now, they’re sitting in jail. Those government officials in Mount Vernon who watched Porcari abuse his power to steal from this City aren’t sitting in jail. They’re sitting in much nicer places like the Mayor’s office, the Corporation Counsel’s office, the City Council, and the Industrial Development Agency.
They want you to believe this was a crime with only one criminal and no accomplices. They need you to believe that. That’s what lack of accountability in government looks like. Real accountability would mean that those accomplices would have to answer for their inaction, for their turning a blind eye, and for receiving the benefit of stolen money. They definitely don’t want that.
Don’t let them pull the wool over your eyes. More money is missing, lots more. And, they continue to sit on the sidelines and pretend it’s not happening. That excuse didn’t work in Minneapolis, and you should demand the same accountability in Mount Vernon. It’s your money. It’s your government. Hold it accountable.
If you have thoughts or comments about this issue or any other, reach out to me at [email protected]