If government's involved, it can't possibly be a crime

August 26, 2001|By Michael Olesker

ALL WEEK LONG, a word banged through our brains: Powerball. It made me think of Julius "Lord" Salisbury. And the word Powerball was attached to a number, $300 million, and we heard these words so constantly that I thought about William L. "Little Willie" Adams and Philip "Pacey" Silbert. And as the moment of selection came near, and millions anticipated the dawning of a new, Powerball-sponsored life of luxury, I thought about Robert "Fifi" London and Louis Comi.

Powerball is a lottery game involving 22 states, officially sanctioned and supervised by governments, and played by millions of people who do not have to look over their shoulders for the cops as they place their wagers. Around here, and across America, 'twas not ever thus.

In the days of Little Willie and Fifi and the others, they didn't call the game Powerball, they called it playing the number. It had the same simple rules, but a completely different set of laws. With the state lotteries, they run TV commercials encouraging you to play. With the number, they called it immoral and put people in jail.

Julius Salisbury, facing a stretch behind bars, instead hid in the bottom of a horse van and fled the country. He was never seen again. Pacey Silbert did serious prison time and was thereafter barred forever from entering a racetrack. An "undesirable," they called him. Willie Adams had to testify before a U.S. Senate committee (and had the courage to tell them what they didn't want to hear).

Of course, all of this was before government realized the fantastic money to be made from lotteries, and thus set aside all previous arguments of morality and the law. Which leads us to a theory advanced several weeks ago, in the Perspective section of this newspaper, in newly revealed diaries kept by that remarkable gangster, Meyer Lansky.

Lansky was many things, but stupid was not one. The CEO of organized crime, he was called; the man who took the mob from convict stripes to pinstripes. In his diary, he lamented that some of the businesses that made him an outlaw - drinking and gambling - had become not only legal but astonishingly lucrative.

"My crime is now accepted and made legal in most of our states," Lansky wrote. "And gambling taken over by the hypocritical mob of stock swindlers with the protection of all law enforcement who until now would call casino gambling immoral. We speak of gambling as though it is a commodity one time and a sin another time."

Lansky was embittered by Sen. Estes Kefauver's 1950s hearings on racketeering. A "political hammer," Lansky called them. But sometimes the hearings backfired, as when Willie Adams testified. Adams had parlayed his Baltimore numbers operation into legitimate businesses and high-level political connections. He became friends with people like Marvin Mandel and Irv Kovens. Some months ago, in fact, Mandel remembered when Kefauver brought his traveling Senate hearings here and tossed subpoenas right and left.

"When Kefauver came to Maryland," the former governor said, "all the other guys had taken a powder. I mean, they were in Florida, they were in the Bahamas, they were all ducking subpoenas. Not Willie. He testified. He told them how he'd been in it, how he ran the business, and how he got out. And also, he made the case that there was no other way for blacks in America to make this kind of money."

Well, it's a different time now. Not only for black entrepreneurs, but for governments wishing to cash in where they once imagined crime and immorality. Or, as Lansky put it, "When the Establishment doesn't earn the profits in gambling, it is run by gangsters, it is immoral, sucking the milk from babies. All this takes on a different twist when it's operated by the big corporations."

Prohibition was another example. A major bootlegger in that time, Lansky wrote, "The customer was most of the grown people from the middle class up."

The phrase "grown people" hits a nerve in a time when beer and fruit-flavored alcoholic drinks are so clearly marketed toward young people - and politicians, bankrolled by the big booze corporations, wring their hands but do nothing about it.

The thing is, we pick and choose our "crimes." Sometimes, we tell ourselves, it's based on changing morality. But maybe Lansky was on to something. It's big corporations and governments, checking the profit potential, that calculate what's no longer "immoral."

Why, for just one example, are the tobacco companies allowed to sell addictive and disease-causing cigarettes - but marijuana is still illegal? The government already knows the profits to be made. When it figures out a way to finesse its hypocrisy for the voting public, will it then legalize marijuana? The big corporations are already poised for such a move.

In the meantime, we have government-sanctioned Powerball, and $300 million payoffs, and everybody talking about it as some kind of celebration of the grand possibilities of capitalism. It reminds me of the old numbers guy Louis Comi. When he was arrested one long-ago Saturday night, the next morning's newspaper called him Louis "Boom-Boom" Comi.

"Boom-Boom" was never his nickname. It was just the whim of an old city editor looking to make Comi sound more like a legitimate gangster. Today, we'd have another name for a fellow in his business. We'd call him "Mr. Comi."

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