Sunday, February 8, 2009

Albany's old ways die hard

By FRED LEBRUN First published in print: Sunday, February 8, 2009

There was a very long time in Albany, during the O'Connell-Corning machine years, when you made a call to who you knew when there was a problem.
A problem like, say, an inconvenient and expensive parking ticket. There was virtually no problem imaginable that couldn't be fixed with the right call.
Those were the bad old days, of who-you-knew justice that naturally promoted an insiders culture, a privileged class. We thought that onerous system of corrupt governing was long gone, shucked once and for all by the late Mayor Tom Whalen when he took over. But the so-called ghost parking ticket scandal that still haunts the city is an irritating reminder that the old ways die hard in some quarters.
It's important at the onset to note that Mayor Jerry Jennings brought to a definitive halt last November the Albany Police Department's hitherto unknown but long-standing practice of issuing no-fee parking tickets to a favored few. The mayor issued his edict after this newspaper revealed that certain Albany police, relatives and friends had little bull's-eyes on their windshields, alerting meter attendants to give them a free pass, virtually anywhere in the city. That got those who live or work in Albany and have to contend with constant parking problems pretty irritated at the favoritism.
Frankly, in retrospect, that is small beer compared to the outrageous revelations last week by our reporter Brendan J. Lyons that a number of private citizens with connections also got scads of free parking for years if they were on a VIP list kept by police department higher-ups.
The reason I say that the latest pool of freebie parking tickets is more galling than the bull's-eye business is that now the stench of old-line who-you-know politics seems to be involved. With the bullseyes, the abuses were exclusively by a few cops that spilled over into family and friends. It was a blue line thing. The bullseye system started as a way for cops on legitimate business, especially around the courthouse, to avoid parking tickets. The abuses that followed are not excusable, but at least understandable, and most cops were not involved.
But there is simply no justifying those on the VIP list who are not cops or other civil servants on city business. It's worth noting that the rank-and-file Albany cop or union member had nothing to do with the VIP list. This is a different deal.
The private citizens who got thousands of free tickets had to be put on the list by some ranking official. Lyons found out about the VIP list and all these no-fee tickets through a Freedom of Information request, so he had to go digging for them.
Knowing there was a VIP list generates questions that still need answers.
How do we know, for example, that the list the city gave Lyons is complete? Rumors persist that there are more names of civilians who got freebies that we haven't yet seen. I'm not saying it's true or not, but the city has opened itself up to a major credibility issue here over the extent of all of this.

Who came up with the list? Who kept it and massaged it year after year? Logically, City Hall is suspect in this regard since it sounds like plain old reward-your-friends politics. But interestingly enough, that's not the signal I'm getting from those in the know. An old police department hand tells me that if City Hall was methodically involved, there would be a lot more names and different ones from those revealed so far. OK, that's an interesting and plausible argument, but we need to hear more.
At the very least we know that a high-ranking Albany Police Department official, at least a commander if not an assistant chief, had to have direct oversight of programming the various meter attendant machines that automatically gave certain license plates a free pass. That would strike me as a pretty good place to start an inquiry that is way overdue here.

Where is Albany's Common Council on this? It is their fiduciary responsibility to find out the extent of these ghost tickets. Big bucks are involved, or at least so it seems. Regardless of how much was lost in revenues, a thorough forensic look at this scandal is needed to restore the city's credibility in very trying times for taxpayers.

If ever there was an occasion to bring in the state comptroller to do a special audit, this is it. Name names. Who ran this scam?
I don't believe City Hall, or the police department, any longer has the credibility to do its own investigation.
Fred LeBrun can be reached at 454-5453 or by e-mail at

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