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From Crony Capitalism To Gangster Graft: The Corrupt History Of Early LA Politics

Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw is given a badge
L.A. Mayor Frank Shaw is given a badge bearing the city's official seal. In 1938, Shaw would be recalled from office in an anti-corruption campaign.
(Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)
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City Hall scandal
  • The latest in a long string of City Hall scandals broke over the weekend, with the release of recordings of racist, derogatory, and homophobic remarks made in a meeting last October during a conversation between three Latino councilmembers — then-President Nury Martinez, Kevin de León and Gil Cedillo — and Ron Herrera, L.A. Labor Federation president.

  • At that fallout continues, we're looking back at the roots of city politics and what they might have to say about where we are today. This piece first published earlier this year.

In Sept. 1938, Los Angeles was atwitter. Mayor Frank Shaw, a gregarious, popular Republican who embraced the ideals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, was recalled from office, accused of running the most corrupt administration in city history.

“I was humiliated to think that after all the work I had done for the benefit of this city such things would be laid to me,” Shaw later complained at a libel trial, per the L.A. Times. “People who formerly waved to me and called ‘Hello, Mayor,’ or ‘Hi, Frank,’ now turn their back.”

While Shaw may have felt his disgrace was unique, his alleged misdoings were not new to L.A. In the almost 100 years since it had become an American city in 1850, the burgeoning government had faced its share of officials both morally and politically corrupt.

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Today, with voting for mayor underway and talk of corruption reform becoming louder — motivated by scandals like the indictment of ex-council member Jose Huizar and allegations of misdeeds in Mayor Eric Garcetti’s administration — the sins of the past seem to be ever more present. “It's all part of a grand necklace, a necklace of behaviors — good and bad,” said historian Bill Deverell.

Wickedest Town In California

From its earliest days as an American city, L.A. had a reputation as the “wickedest town in California.” According to historian and author John Mack Faragher, author of Eternity Street, L.A., like the rest of California, had gone from unsteady Mexican colonial rule to unsteady American rule, with no transition period in between.

“In the late 19th century there was simply a complete mismatch between power of authority, the power of law, and the social situation,” he said. “State, county and local authorities were extremely weak.”

This led to behavior by city officials that we would today think of as corruption — taking bribes, abusing power, and racial violence. But since there were not strong laws or courts, Faragher argues the behavior was not in fact consciously corrupt.

“Corruption implies that there's a given line of operations that needs to be laid down and maintained, and someone is bypassing that for reasons of aggrandizing power or accumulating wealth, or a violation of the existing norms,” Faragher said. “There were no norms.”

One of the earliest examples of this situation is Mayor Stephen C. Foster. In Jan. 1855, he resigned from office to join a mob who lynched convicted murderer Dave Brown, after the California Supreme Court issued a stay of execution. While today this action would be unthinkable, he was seemingly feted by the people, who re-elected him in a special election the next year.

Crony Capitalism

As the 19th century barreled on, a power base with sway over the local government began to form, controlled by Anglo capitalists like Harrison Gray Otis of the L.A. Times and railroad magnate Henry Huntington.

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“They were people who'd sell things before they existed,” said Gary Krist, author of The Mirage Factory. “Developers would sell subdivisions when they were still farms. They would show maps with imaginary streets on them. So, there's this quality of a grifter. It’s selling something sort of like the mirage …. and then worrying about making the mirage into something real later, after they had the money.”

By the turn of the century the real movers and shakers in City Hall were this clutch of powerful white men, who would do almost anything to turn the dusty, backwater L.A. into an international metropolis.

That's what we call crony capitalism, where politics and capitalism get mixed and intermingled and power flows from that.
— Faragher

“Not until the turn of the century does the law enforcement establishment in the city and county of Los Angeles establish any kind of authority. And then it is largely in the service of capitalistic employers, of the streetcar companies, and the newspapers, and the emerging industrial orders,” Faragher said.

“That's what we call crony capitalism, where politics and capitalism get mixed and intermingled and power flows from that," he said. "And that's corruption.”

As Krist notes, the virulently anti-union position of men like Otis and his powerful son-in-law Harry Chandler led to a unique situation in the city.

“In other places there was a balance of corruption between the labor unions on the one side and management and the government on the other," he said. "They were both kind of corrupt. I think that the kind of corruption that developed more dominantly in L.A. had to do with the big companies and the capitalists, and the people who paid money to get these candidates elected in the first place.”

A Candidate Called 'His Dishonor'

One of those candidates, the rowdy, Mississippi-born Arthur Cyprian Harper, was elected mayor in 1906. “With Harper at the helm, the city was basically controlled by Big Oil and Big Railroad, two industries whose money oozed into the basin and the mayor’s pockets,” historian Glen Creason writes in Los Angeles Magazine.

A black and white photo of Arthur Cyprian Harper, who has short hair with a center parting, and a large bushy mustache. He's wearing a suit and tie.
Arthur Cyprian Harper, Mayor of Los Angeles from 1906-1909
Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library)

According to Cecilia Rasmussen of the Los Angeles Times, Harper also oversaw a city system that took protection money from brothels, casinos, and saloons with one hand, while claiming to be cleaning up the vice district near the old Plaza with the other.

Harper was rumored to be a frequent visitor to the famed madam Pearl Morton’s brothel (which stood at the current site of the Hall of Justice). According to Rasmussen, Harper claimed innocence, saying his drunken trips to Pearl’s were simply a “fact-finding mission.”

Harper couldn’t fool the cynical scribes at the Los Angeles Herald. They unleashed a series of articles exposing corruption at City Hall, labeling him “his dishonor.”

The mayor could not deny the will of the people who were calling for a recall. Rather than face that humiliation, he resigned in 1909.

But L.A. would not have to wait long for its next mayoral scandal. In 1915, the handsome Charles E. Sebastian was elected mayor. A “Los Angeles policeman since 1907, Sebastian had been a Chinatown vice raider and allegedly a bagman for the Harper administration,” according to author Tom Sitton.

With his nefarious past, it is not surprising that the political opposition was gunning for Sebastian even before he was elected (even having him indicted briefly for beating a homeless man months before the election).

But his actual undoing was something much more titillating — a sex scandal. A letter Sebastian had written to his mistress Lillian Pratt surfaced in 1916. In it he called his long-suffering wife “an old Haybag” and wrote of buying his mistress gifts. A furious Sebastian fought back, claiming the letter could have been forged with a rubber stamp of his signature, and told the Los Angeles Times:

These dirty, contemptible cowards who have been harassing me ever since I aspired to the office … will never have the satisfaction of seeing me give up. There is absolutely no truth to the stories.

Days later, a frantic Sebastian, “his hair awry, his eyes bloodshot and swollen,” paced the floor as he admitted to a reporter that he was resigning on account of ill health. “I am too sick, too sick,” he wailed, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Don’t make me talk about it. It’s all over now … I am going away. Until I get well, I will do nothing, nothing. And don’t ask me where I am going. No one is to know. Thank god it is over now.”

City Hall And The Underworld

Sebastian’s peccadillos would look quaint compared with the rot that would grow in City Hall during the booming 1920s. The decade was dominated by former USC football star Kent Kane Parrot, chief of staff to Mayor George Cryer.

“In the twenties with Hollywood and prohibition —- you start your life anew and change your name and get famous and be beautiful and young,” said historian Deverell.

“And that destroys a lot of lives," he said. "That’s what Nathaniel West is writing about in Day of the Locust. Be careful what you believe because it's not going to come true for very many of you at all. And the rest of you will be desperate.”

Black and white image of Kent Parrot, sitting on a bench, wearing a wide-lapelled dark suit, with a striped tie, holding a straw hat
Kent Parrot, politician and attorney, sits in a courtroom, Los Angeles, 1930s
(Daily News/UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections)

People like Parrot took advantage of this thirst for success, drawing countless small-time hoods and civil servants into his schemes. According to L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of the Seductive City, by John Buntin, Parrot joined with jovial gangster Charlie “Good Time” Crawford to rule over the LAPD and City Hall with an iron fist. “Parrot let Charlie Crawford work the way he knew. Kickbacks and bribes got things done,” Buntin writes.

“Money had to be made and the boys had to be looked after," according to Buntin. "Vice wasn’t a racket, it was a business; and corruption was merely a part of the grown-up fallen world.”

Known as both “the combination” or “the system,” this partnership between City Hall and the underworld fueled Parrot’s political campaigns and lined government employees’ pockets. Bootleggers and gangsters flourished under police protection. “It was the most lucrative, the most efficient, and the best-entrenched graft operation in the country,” journalist Matt Weinstock wrote.

This explosion in corruption was not unique to Los Angeles, though there were unique factors.

“The velocity of metropolitan growth is so fast, and the arrival of such large economic drivers in the culture, like Hollywood and oil, and then federal expenditures for infrastructure in the New Deal era,” said Deverell.

“Then, of course, the second world war, there's just a great deal of velocity and money," he said. "And things are changing so fast, but corruption in American cities, it certainly isn't limited to LA.”

Clinton’s Cafeteria vs the Mayor

Many historians believe government corruption reached its peak in Los Angeles in 1933, with the election of county Supervisor Frank Shaw.

“Mayor Shaw appointed his brother Joe as his personal secretary, and Joe Shaw ran all patronage, bypassing the civil service process with impunity — for a consideration,” Kevin Starr writes in The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s.

The Shaws found a formidable foe in upright and uptight cafeteria owner Clifford Clinton, who launched an extensive investigation into the administration. Starr writes:

Los Angeles, Clinton discovered, was supporting an intricate network of brothels, gambling houses, and clip joints, all of it run by well-organized syndicates headed by gambler Guy McAfee and Bob Gans, chief concessionaire of slot machines throughout the city, with attorneys Kent Parrot and Charles Kradick serving as mouthpieces …Clinton also found evidence of corruption in Mayor Shaw’s office, specifically the way the mayor’s brother peddled civil service appointments and fueled the Shaw political machine with cash payments from gambling interests. District Attorney Fitts, Clinton discovered, was using the grand jury system to settle old scores and to protect old and new friends.

What followed is straight out of a film noir. In Oct. 1937, Clinton’s home in Los Feliz was bombed — there were no casualties. According to Buntin, a car with a license plate tied to the LAPD was seen fleeing from the scene. On Jan. 14, 1938, private detective Harry Raymond’s car exploded when he turned the ignition. Three policemen with ties to City Hall were eventually convicted of attempted murder.

Undeterred, Clinton helped launch a vigorous recall campaign against the mayor. Shaw was vigorously defended by many supporters, including the group “Citizens of the Eastside.”

But Clinton and his cronies were victorious. In Sept. 1938, Shaw became the only L.A. mayor to ever be recalled. Joe Shaw and an accomplice were convicted of 63 counts of selling government jobs.

In Shaw’s place, reforming Judge Fletcher Bowron was elected, promising to clean up City Hall. He was, according to Time Magazine, "a fiercely honest man, and is eternally intent on protecting Los Angeles from itself."

As current scandals show, protecting L.A. from itself may be a losing proposition.

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