Taking Care of Business (chapter 27)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.) 

Two hours later staff members wandered, one by one, into Norbert’s city hall office. This was the mayor’s morning staff meeting, and the regular participants were Wilma O’Neill, the city’s managing director; Cisco Estevez, the city’s lawyer; Todd Dixon, the finance director; Rikki Johnston, the mayor’s press secretary; and Ed Williams and Larry Newman, two special assistants to the mayor. Joining them this morning at the mayor’s request were police commissioner Frank Ryan and Jon Ravelsky.

Once everyone was seated the mayor wasted no time beginning.

“What the hell happened last night?” he asked.

“As you read in the paper,” O’Neill began, but the mayor cut her off.

“I’d like to hear this directly from my police commissioner, please.”

O’Neill nodded and let Ryan speak.

“We’ve been watching these folks for nearly a year, and closely for about seven months. This was a major bust of a large, very high-priced prostitution ring.”

“I had no idea we cared about prostitution,” Norbert said.

“Normally we don’t, but it’s different when it’s flouted right in front of us, as it was in this case.

“We certainly don’t go searching for high-priced call girls. What little time we spend on this kind of thing is devoted to quality-of-life crimes, and that generally means sweeping up fifty-dollar hookers off street corners on Spruce and Locust and near the convention center when there are events in town. Otherwise, we don’t really care about it.”

“Then why this? Because you know we’re going to be asked.”

“Nearly a year ago there was a flood in the building where the operation has its headquarters and our licenses and inspections department had to clear the repairs before it could be reoccupied. The inspector found a few violations – pretty minor stuff, actually – but instead of just getting it fixed, Doctoroff tried to slip the inspector two hundred dollars. The inspector immediately called us.”

“I see,” Norbert said, paused for a moment, and then asked, “Wait a minute: licenses and inspections has an honest inspector who reported an attempted bribe instead of just pocketing it? Since when?”

“Yeah, who knew?” Newman interjected.

“Well,” commissioner Ryan continued, “this particular inspector’s father is a cop and two of his brothers are cops and the only reason he’s not a cop is that he took some shrapnel in Desert Storm, so he settled for L&I inspector. The family takes law enforcement very seriously.

“So we sent him back wearing a wire and a story that he would consider taking care of the violations but that whether he did or he didn’t, he still needed to measure and diagram the space to make sure the room configuration was the same as it was before the flood. We wanted to get them to offer him money again and for us to have our guys catch it on tape it when they did.”

“And?”

“And Doctoroff wasn’t there when he arrived, so he started diagramming and measuring the rooms while the receptionist hunted down Doctoroff. The inspector became suspicious because he thought the place had way too many phone jacks for what was supposed to be an accountant’s office. At first we thought maybe Doctoroff was making book, so we decided to keep an eye on the place rather than take him down immediately for the bribe. Well, we saw pretty quickly that it was a decent-sized operation and that some pretty well-known people might be involved. We took our time gathering evidence because we figured that sooner or later we’d see a mob tie-in, which became our primary interest, and that once that surfaced, we’d move in on Doctoroff. We finally had what we needed late last week and moved in late last night.”

“Why wasn’t I told about this?” Norbert demanded.

“You don’t want to know about individual criminal investigations unless it’s in response to a visible public crime,” Estevez said. “It raises too many political complications down the road – especially in situations like this where you may be acquainted with some of the customers.”

“Am I?” Norbert asked.

“Yes. A lot of them,” Ryan replied.

“And Representative Ianucci is one of them?”

“Yes.”

“A frequent customer?”

“Does it really matter?”

“And there’s no doubt?”

“None.”

“Are you planning to prosecute?”

“The johns? That’s the DA’s decision, not ours, but I doubt it.”

“So I guess you have a problem in your department, Frank.”

“Sir?”

“The leak. Somebody leaked Ianucci’s name to the press.”

“No sir. Doctoroff himself gave his name to Megan Malone of the Post.”

“You’re kidding. How?”

“One of my men overheard it. He did it with his one phone call. Instead of calling a lawyer, he called Malone and told her his story and a few more choice bits and then asked Malone to call his lawyer.”

“Unbelievable.”

“No, sir, that’s only the start.”

“There’s more?”

“Malone told me that Doctoroff told her that if the charges aren’t dropped within forty-eight hours he’s going to start giving her more names – one every other day. Each one will be someone prominent, and Doctoroff claims he can do it for months without repeating himself. Doctoroff apparently claims to have city officials past and present, other elected officials, the heads of some local companies, a few local TV and radio people, some prominent members of the clergy, some professional athletes, and even a few high-profile women who’ve been his customers and hired women from him.”

“Cisco, can he do that?”

“Probably,” the city solicitor said. “A judge could cut off his direct access to the press, but there are plenty of other ways to disseminate that kind of information.”

“Has he attempted to use this yet as a bargaining chip?”

“No, not yet,” the police commissioner said. “But his lawyer hinted at it last night. She’s meeting with the DA later this morning.”

Norbert turned to his press secretary.

“Rikki, how do we handle this?”

“’We’ don’t,” Johnston replied. “This is a police matter and the police and the DA should handle it. I’ll work with police public affairs to develop the overall strategy, if that’s okay with you, commissioner, but the one and only statement that should come from this office is that this is an ongoing police investigation, that you have no intention of commenting on it, and that you’re leaving the decisions about police work to the police commissioner and decisions about prosecution to the DA.”

“That sounds good, but I also want it to be the truth,” Norbert said.

“Frank,” Norbert said, turning to his police commissioner, “this isn’t a matter of an immediate threat to the public safety, so I don’t want to be involved in the decision-making unless something arises that’s different from what we already know. If that happens, you take it to Cisco and Wilma. Otherwise, I want an update of no more than one page sent to me, Wilma, Cisco, and Rikki every day by five. Those reports should include the status of prosecution plans as you best understand them. I’ll ask the DA to keep you in the loop on those decisions, but I have a city to run and I have no intention of getting bogged down in a criminal investigation – and of prostitution, of all things.”

The others in the room nodded.

“Thank you for joining us, Frank,” the mayor said to his police commissioner. Ryan took this as his cue to depart.

Norbert turned to Ravelsky.

“I have a feeling that’s going to be the easy part. So Jon, what does this mean politically?”

Ravelsky, who had been silent so far and had looked almost disinterested, leaned forward in his chair.

“The implications,” he began, “are enormous, and potentially catastrophic for the city and your administration.

“Unless Ianucci is vindicated almost immediately – something that sounds highly unlikely – he’ll lose at least some of his influence in Harrisburg, if not all of it.”

“Vindicated?” one of the mayor’s aides asked.

“Something bizarre, like maybe it was someone who looks a lot like him, or if it’s another Michael Ianucci, or if the evidence is lost. But that sounds highly unlikely, and what it means for you is that forces that have nothing to do with you personally are going to react in ways that are probably going to cause you a lot of pain.”

“Such as?”

“No disrespect to you, but Michael’s the most powerful politician in Philadelphia and the most powerful politician in Harrisburg. If – no, when – he’s seen as vulnerable, everyone he’s ever beaten or hurt or just kept in his shadow is going to be looking for blood. People have been waiting for years for this kind of opportunity. The governor hates him. Council hates him. The legislature hates him. Even his protégés – the people who’d be writing tickets for the parking authority if it weren’t for him – they hate him, too. They’re going to try to hurt him, and one of the best ways to do that is to take advantage of his sudden and unexpected loss of influence to hurt the interests that are nearest and dearest to him.”

“And that is…?”

“Philadelphia, for one. First and foremost, at least in the state capital, Michael’s perceived as the city’s champion. He carries the city’s water there every year, and all these years, he’s beaten off every attempt to hurt the city. He’s been the guard at the door, and now he’ll be gone and the door will be unguarded.

“And the thing is, even hurt, he could still be formidable, but he’s going to be too distracted.”

“But Frank said he doubts they’ll prosecute.”

“That’s not it. First, there’ll be a lot of press attention, which Michael’s never really faced before. He and his organization have always pretty much flown under the radar. Those days are now gone. More important, he’s up for renomination in six weeks.”

“That’s never been a problem for him, and as I understand it, he has no opposition.”

“Now,” Ravelsky said. “But when this comes out someone will run, you can be sure of it. His political enemies will find someone to put up against him, and any such candidates will have important advantages.

“Like?”

“Like they weren’t caught with their pants down around their ankles in a whorehouse, Jim.”

“Yeah, I guess that matters.”

“It does. He could still win despite that, especially since time’s so short, but for the first time since he won the seat twenty years ago he’s probably going to have to work for it. He’s going to have to raise money and canvass and put his own organization to work for himself for once. He’ll have to take his opponents seriously, knowing that no matter what he says or does there’ll be people intent on going into the voting booth to cast their ballot for anyone but him.”

“So what do you think we should do?” Norbert asked.

“When your horse breaks down before the race begins, you have a choice: find another horse or sit out the race.”

“The latter doesn’t seem like much of an option for us, does it?”

“No, it’s doesn’t.”

“Then what?”

“There’s no one person who can step in and replace Michael in Harrisburg. You’re going to need the entire delegation. Like everyone else in Harrisburg, they’re all ambitious – they want to be mayor or governor or chair one committee or another, and they’ve all felt held down by Michael’s overwhelming power over the years. They’ll see this as their big opportunity to step up and show what they can do without him. You’re going to have to take advantage of that and convince them, individually and collectively, that they can begin doing that now by showing that they can do what Michael always does: rescue the city from the anti-Philadelphia forces in Harrisburg.”

“How do I do that if they’re all competing?”

“You’re going to have to charm them and appeal to their ambitions. You’ll have to organize them, work with them to develop a strategy, and then help them execute that strategy. I’ll help you with that, and so will the chairman. The local Republican leadership will, too.”

“The Republicans?”

“Absolutely. They’re the majority party in the legislature, but the local guys have never been able to protect the city’s interests. Michael’s always given them cover. If the city takes it in the neck in the budget, they know that people will look at them and complain that they couldn’t even successfully work their fellow Republicans. They don’t want to risk looking like the incompetent, impotent fools they are. Don’t worry; they’ll help.

“This is all going to cost you, though. The funny thing is, when Michael wins on your behalf, he never asks for anything in return – at least not right away. He just banks your goodwill until he needs it. These guys, though, have years of unfulfilled wishes and limited access, and they’re all going to have their wish lists. If you expect them to deliver for you, you’re going to have to deliver for them.

“What kind of relationships do you have with them?”

“Decent, I think,” Norbert said.

“Meaning…”

“Meaning that Ed and Larry both talk to them all every week, without fail. I check in with all of them every two weeks or so. It’s mostly courtesy calls, but they seem to appreciate it. My predecessor never gave them the time of day. I also let them know that they’ll always be able to get through to me without a hassle and that my staff has been instructed not to screen their calls.”

“And what do they want from you?”

“The usual – some jobs, a playground, a call to a potential donor, things like that. I think we’ve been pretty supportive.”

Wilma O’Neill, silent as always during political discussions, now interrupted.

“But not entirely supportive, Mr. Mayor.”

Norbert looked at her.

“What?” Ravelsky asked.

“You’ve given them all a lot, but there’s one thing they all want that you repeatedly refuse to give them.”

Norbert had no idea what she was talking about.

“What?” he asked.

“They want Shaniqua Watson. They want her out.”

(more next Sunday)

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