The Rise and Fall of a Mayor: From Up and Coming to Prison-Bound

Associated Press

Lee Alexander was once one of the most visible mayors in America, a politician who seemed destined for bigger things.

Now he appears destined for prison.

As mayor of New York's fifth-largest city, Alexander had a penchant for beautiful women, chauffeur-driven limos and bodyguards. He was a snappy dresser with a deep tan and his hair always in place.

During his 16 years as mayor, Alexander, a Democrat, was often the spokesman for the nation's mayors. He served as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and six times was elected president of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors.

There was talk of a big job in Washington and speculation that he might someday run for governor. Party leaders made him their candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1974, but he lost the primary to former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark.

Now it turns out that the man who seemed so urbane and polished was actually an extortionist using his power to coerce money from people who wanted to do business with the city of Syracuse.

Contractors Had to Pay

Alexander's scheme preyed on architects, lawyers, engineers and insurance agents. They paid him up to 25% of the cost of a project--in bonds, gold coins or cash.

For example, an architect paid Alexander $125,000 for the opportunity to work on a project at the city's Hancock International Airport and another paid $25,500 for a hospital parking garage expansion. An insurance agent paid an Alexander bagman $26,200 for a fire policy. A lawyer paid an Alexander agent $2,878 to get the legal work on a downtown building project.

"A lot of people turned down the deals and nothing happened," said U.S. Atty. Frederick J. Scullin. "Alexander was astute enough to know where he could put the pressure. If someone caved in, well, he kept the pressure on. If someone rebuffed him right away, he'd back right up."

By the time Alexander left City Hall, in 1986, he was a millionaire.

Now he has to pay it all back.

Alexander pleaded guilty to violating federal racketeering laws by using his power as mayor to extort money, conspiring to obstruct the investigation and evading income taxes on his illegal profits.

Sentencing is scheduled for Thursday.

Record Sentence Possible

The federal prosecutor is recommending that Alexander get 10 years in prison and be fined $100,000. Scullin said he thinks a 10-year sentence would be longer than any yet handed to a public corruption figure in the nation.

Alexander could have faced 690 years in prison if he had been convicted on all 40 counts in the original indictment. Nine others who pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the investigation will be sentenced along with Alexander.

Alexander has agreed to return $1.2 million of his illegal gains, a settlement he says will leave him in worse financial shape than he was in 1970, when he began his mayoral career.

Attorneys turned over to prosecutors shopping bags filled with valuable bonds and coupons. Some of the money was banked overseas, in places such as the Bahamas and Panama, according to Scullin.

Alexander's undoing started when Scullin was appointed U.S. attorney for northern New York in 1982. Scullin, who grew up in Syracuse and earned his law degree from Syracuse University, said he had heard talk that Alexander was crooked.

Rumors Led to Probe

"This thing really began when I first became U.S. attorney," Scullin said. "There were rumors on the street then about Alexander being a wheeler and a dealer. If not kickbacks, then there was talk about a lot of conflicts. The rumors were pretty rampant. I decided we should look into it and put them to rest, one way or another."

At first it was slow going, but the investigators persisted.

"You keep working and working, nibbling away at it, developing whatever information you can," Scullin said. "There was a pattern of no-bid contracts and professional fees.

"We got a couple of breaks. We got lucky."

The Internal Revenue Service and the FBI joined in the investigation. A witness came forward to offer information in exchange for immunity. "That was the crack in the dam," Scullin said.

Alexander became the focus of attention of a team of prosecutors, 20 FBI agents and 20 IRS agents. What they came up with was enough evidence to persuade a grand jury to indict the mayor.

Powerful in Politics

Alexander had always seemed on the verge of becoming a political heavyweight.

In 1976, he passed up an opportunity to be an early supporter of Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign to serve instead as Upstate campaign coordinator for Sen. Henry Jackson of Washington state.

His extortion scheme was designed to increase his influence with national politicians, according to Scullin.

"He wanted to be considered a viable influence on the Democratic Party and make things happen," Scullin said. "He could get the money where other people could not."

Many of the kickbacks Alexander arranged were paid as political contributions to big-time Democrats, Scullin said. New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis were among the recipients.

"Toward the end, he sort of lost track of the political contributions," Scullin said. "As he could see his star dwindling the last three or four years, I think he was more concerned about lining his own pockets. He got greedier and greedier as time went on."

Made Many Trips

Opponents were critical of Alexander's frequent trips away from Syracuse, but Alexander defended his travels by saying that he came back with federal money for the city.

Alexander found a publicity opportunity when a gunman killed a man, then took a pregnant woman and her baby hostage in a black section of Syracuse and held police off for most of the day.

After news photographers were held back by police for many hours, they were suddenly allowed to approach the house. The door opened and Alexander ran out of the house, clutching the baby. Photographs of the mayor carrying the baby to safety were displayed in newspapers across the country the next day. Black leaders complained that it was the only time Alexander had ever visited the neighborhood.

On the local level, Alexander was a skillful and effective politician. Until he came along, the Republicans had dominated Syracuse and Onondaga County politics. Alexander's campaign not only ended 16 years of Republican control of the mayor's office, but led the Democrats to control of the Common Council.

Not everyone liked Alexander. When shots were fired at his house, police were prompted to build a guard house outside it.

Auditor's Complaints

City Auditor Roy Bernardi was probably Alexander's most vocal critic. Bernardi's complaints were aimed mainly at the way the mayor did business. The auditor said that he knew the city was paying too much for its projects and was always doing business with the same people.

"I noticed a pattern that, if not illegal--and I had no proof of that--it was not in the best interest of the city," said Bernardi, who is still city auditor.

While Alexander was in power, his Republican opponents who controlled surrounding Onondaga County became the target of a special investigation of alleged political corruption. Despite the talk on the street, the special prosecutor didn't pay much attention to the Democrats.

The special prosecutor was appointed by then-Gov. Hugh Carey, a Democrat, to investigate allegations that Republicans had illegally coerced political contributions from public workers. The investigation resulted in the convictions of several influential Republicans who claimed that they were unfairly singled out for activities that were common in politics and were also practiced by City Hall Democrats.

Indeed, the crimes of the Republicans paled when compared to what was going on in Alexander's office.

Republicans' Offenses

The Republicans were convicted of breaking a state law against political fund-raising in public buildings and of misdemeanors. They were acquitted of the more serious charges. No Republican went to prison and no Democrat was indicted in that special investigation.

Alexander is not talking publicly about his troubles, his lawyer said. After making his guilty plea, Alexander issued a statement that the city never paid for any service it did not receive.

"I accept sole responsibility for what happened," Alexander said in his statement. "While pursuing the highest standards of integrity with respect to the conduct of members of my Administration, I did not apply those same standards to myself."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World