25. Black Elected Officials Targeted by Law

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

Source: EMERGE Title: “Targets For Scrutiny,” Date: October 1996, Author: Joe Davidson

SSU Censored Researchers: Amber Knight, Yvonne Jolley-Crawford, and Brian Foust
Community Evaluator: Rick Williams, J.D.

Statistical evidence indicates that black elected officials have tended to be investigated by law enforcement agencies at higher rates than white elected officials. According to the Washington-based Joint Center of Political and Economic Studies, in the past 25 years, 70 members of Congress have faced criminal charges. Fifteen percent of those investigated have been minorities—four times their percentage in the legislative body.

The Washington Post reported that black elected officials were the target of investigations for corruption in 14 percent of the 465 political corruption cases launched between 1983 and 1988—a period in which blacks were just 3 percent of all office holders. Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) magazine noted that about half of the Congressional Black Caucus members were the subject of investigations or indictments between 1981 and 1993. States GQ, “For the numbers to be equal for white representatives, 204 of the 409 whites … would have been subjected to the same scrutiny during that time … Yet, according to justice Department figures, only 15 actually were.”

In an interview with author Joe Davidson, Robert Moussallem, an FBI informant charged with getting incriminating information on black officials in Atlanta, sets forth his experience with the policy of harassing of black officials. He states, “Shortly after I began working with the FBI in 1979, I was made aware of an unofficial policy of the FBI which was generally referred to by Special Agent John McAvoy as Fruhmenschen [German for early or primitive man]. The purpose of the policy was the routine investigation without probable cause of prominent elected and appointed black officials in major metropolitan areas throughout the United States. I learned from my conversations with special agents of the FBI that the basis for this policy was the assumption y the FBI that black officials were intellectually and socially incapable of governing major government organizations and institutions.” (Moussallem’s assignment, according to a 1989 affidavit, was to entice Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington and other black officials to take bribes on a phony land deal.)

Mary Sawyer, a professor at Iowa State University who has studied the treatment of black officials, says, “The magnitude of the harassment cannot be measured solely in terms of numbers of cases … the higher the level of office, or the more outspoken the official, or the greater the influence and power, the higher the incidence of harassment.”

While law enforcement agencies deny specifically targeting black elected officials, there are considerable differences in the levels of investigations and the degree of punishment between black and white elected officials in the United States.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR JOE DAVIDSON: “In ‘Targets for Scrutiny,’ I explored the accusation that black elected officials are unfairly scrutinized by comparing the treatment of Mel Reynolds with other current and former members of Congress who had been accused of sex-related crimes or misconduct. The importance of the piece is that it provided real examples of disparate treatment.

“The article certainly did not say that the now-imprisoned Reynolds, former Congressman from Chicago and certain southern suburbs, was innocent, nor the white men mentioned, guilty. But the story did demonstrate, with specific detail, how somewhat similar behavior was treated so differently. It showed that the likelihood that black people will fall victim to the double standard of justice does not diminish with status.

“While complaints about the double standard by black officials have been carried by the mainstream press, the Emerge article went beyond that to show how white officials generally were treated much more leniently than Reynolds.

“Resources for this topic are less abundant than for other issues in the fields of criminal and social justice. Places to begin include the Leadership Forum, Tel: 202/789-3500; the Black Caucus, Tel: 202/222-7790; and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Tel: 202/624-5457.”