Selectman Jon Kurland has embarked on a yearlong crusade as an apologist for graft and corruption in town hall, defending the perpetrators of the 9 North Road scandal as victims of “bullies” like Roland Van Liew (disclaimer: that’s me).
In one of his recent more bizarre twists of “logic,” Kurland literally scoffs that there is no graft in Chelmsford because, “This isn’t Philadelphia. This isn’t Chicago.”
Such a vacuous statement hardly bears responding to, but I thought it was interesting that Kurland associates graft with big cities. Was there some aspect to the definition or some historical data that might associate graft with large metro areas?
First I turned to the dictionary, which is no help in that regard. Here is a definition:
Graft: Unscrupulous use of one's position to derive profit or advantages; Money or an advantage gained or yielded by unscrupulous means. – American Heritage Dictionary
Well, the 9 North Road scandal certainly qualifies. My interest was piqued as to what would disqualify 9 North Road from that definition in Jon Kurland’s mind, so I went back in time to search for primary sources in the early 1900s, when graft was so pervasive that it was considered the major threat to good and honest government across the country. Cosmopolitan Magazine in 1906 devoted an entire issue to the problem, and one of the more interesting pieces in that issue revolved around asking high school boys what ‘graft’ is all about. (In those days, girls simply weren’t asked their opinion of such things.)
From Cosmopolitan Magazine, June, 1906:
“It is humiliating to confess it, but the idea seems to be gaining ground among our young men that to succeed in business, in politics, or in professional life one must not be too particular about the means employed. The evil of a widespread system of graft, which seems to appeal to the sense of humor instead of provoking that decency, is largely responsible for the prevalence of these ideas, as is also the immunity of the offenders from punishment...
[As you read the responses of these high schoolers, think whether they apply to 9 North Road, or are limited to large cities such as Philadelphia and Chicago.]
“What does the healthy, curious-minded American schoolboy think of graft? ...The replies were intensely interesting... “What is meant by the word ‘graft’?” Here are some replies chosen at random out of the many received:
Boodle indeed. These high school boys have a better grasp on the fundamental nature of graft than Jon Kurland, a lawyer and selectman. The rest of the selectmen join him in not only refusing to investigate the scandal, but in actively opposing independent formal inquiry. It’s an insult to all of us to use taxpayer dollars to fund the town’s law firm to act against the interests of the residents - both in the domain of common sense and the “legal and technical sense,” as Kurland puts it. But that’s what they’ve done, and it’s one of the many reasons – along with lack of oversight in general – that we need new selectmen.
George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall, New York's Democratic political machine in the early 1900s, distinguished between "honest" and "dishonest" graft. Dishonest graft involved payoffs for protecting gambling and prostitution, or persuading the government to alter its plans to make one’s land holdings more valuable. Honest graft might involve buying up land already scheduled for purchase by government. As Plunkitt said, "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em." Jon Kurland might view the Eliopoulos land grab as “honest,” but in fact there are several criteria that, even in George Washington Plunkitt’s view, make it both “illegal” and “dishonest.”
Roland Van Liew