Double Crossed: The Failure Of Organised Crime Control

Author: Michael Woodiwiss
Publisher: London; Pluto Press; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 272p.
Reviewer: Frederick T. Martens | July 2017

As a student of Paul Walton (The New Criminology) in the 1970’s, I learned to appreciate the value of critical and Marxist analysis, whether or not I agreed with its ultimate resolutions. Michael Woodiwiss, whose historical research is without question quite rich and robust, gave me little reason to question the many assumptions he draws in this latest text. As the late Judge Learned Hand opined, “let…[us] be severely brought to book when…[we] go wrong…but by those who will take the trouble to understand…” Hopefully I have fulfilled this challenge.

Initially when I saw the title of this book, I immediately thought that finally someone has come up with a way to assess the effectiveness of organized crime control strategies. While much has been written about organized crime control efforts, there has been little if any empirical research conducted on the effectiveness of the strategies that have been employed. Rigorous and credible evaluations are far and few between, and unfortunately, Woodiwiss joins the long list of researchers that have failed to come up with an assessment model that would be “scientific, value free, and objective.”

One of the many dilemmas that are faced by any researcher attempting to assess organized crime control efforts is defining organized crime. As Klaus von Lampe points out, there are any numbers of definitions of organized crime. This is central to addressing what it is that law enforcement is attempting to contain or control. Woodiwiss provides several of descriptions vis-a-vis definitions of organized crime but few that adhere themselves to rigorous empirical testing. Without an operational understanding of what it is law enforcement is attempting to control or contain, it is difficult to determine what comprises success and what constitutes failure?

According to Woodiwiss, the Wickersham Commission between 1929 and 1931, “undertook the first and last scientific and objective government-sponsored inquiry into organized crime” (p. 149).

From most account, this Commission used the same research method— interviews of police, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys, and many others—that the 1967 Task Force Report: Organized Crime; the 1976 Report of the Task Force on Organized Crime; and the 1983 President’s Commission on Organized Crime, applied to their respective government-sponsored studies of organized crime.

Ironically, Woodiwiss uses the Wickersham Commission as a model upon which to compare subsequent “government-sponsored research” with. This is certainly problematic given the fact that Wickersham recommended the continuation of Prohibition, an utter failure that only exacerbated the problem of public and police corruption and organized crime.

Furthermore, most accounts of Wickersham suggest that this Commission was used primarily to provide then President Herbert Hoover with political cover—certainly a tact that has continued ever since. Lest we forget that George Wickersham was the Attorney General appointed by Hoover—another insider who was part of the “swamp” that characterized the era of the “Roaring 20’s.”

Throughout the reading of this text, it becomes clear that Woodiwiss views organized crime in the context of organized business and organized government. He adopts the term “criminaloid” —a term that refers to the criminally powerful. The “criminaloid” is [too] “squeamish and too prudent to practice treachery, brutality and violence himself, he takes care to work through middlemen…By pointing out that the sins of modern day industrialists were more destructive than more familiar, older forms of crime, Edward Ross [the originator of this term] was thus attempting to broaden the definition of crime.”

Of course, subsequently Edwin Sutherland created the social construct “white collar crime” to encompass that which Ross and Woodiwiss contend, defines the “criminaloid.”

A most interesting, informative and shocking revelation that Woodiwiss unmasks is the role of Vice President (of the United States) Charles Dawes, who he labels a “criminaloid”, in shaping public opinion on organized crime during the era of the “Roaring 20’s.” It is a fascinating piece of historical research that has never, at least to my recollection, found its way into the annals of organized crime. Indeed, his treatment of Dawes as a “plain-speaking advocate of law and order” once again demonstrates that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Circa 2016!

Woodiwiss argues that historically there has been the “pervasive dumbing down” of our understanding of organized crime, with “the business community, the police and the politicians…defining themselves out of the problem.”

Regardless of their efforts to “define themselves out of the problem,” the consultants to the 1967 TFR spared no words in describing the corruption of public and police officials and the business community’s complicity in promoting and protecting organized criminal syndicates. Clearly, John Gardiner’s explosive piece of research indicts the police department, the politicians and the business community for systemic corruption related to the gambling, prostitution, and corrupt business rackets that permeated the City of Wincanton (i.e. Reading, Pennsylvania). It was (and still is) a compelling story in 1967, a time when there was virtually no academic research being undertaken on organized crime because “academics tended to shun the topic of organized crime unless it was to be located firmly at the bottom of American society…”

Neither did the 1968 Lilley Commission Report [“define themselves out of the problem”], another government-sponsored report that provided a candid appraisal of the consequences of systemic corruption and organized crime on the body-politic of Newark, New Jersey. This and any number of other government-sponsored reports clearly implicated “politicians, police and the business community” in systemic corruption and organized crime.

Woodiwiss seems particularly chagrined by the fact that the United States promoted many of its organized crime strategies, methods, and techniques to other parts of the world, using both bureaucratic and diplomatic pressure. “Rarely,” he argues, “is the supremacy of American organized crime control techniques challenged.”

This seems to imply that there is something foul or unsavory in attempting to enlist other nations in the containment of organized crime (e.g. human trafficking, organized wildlife crime, narcotics distribution, money laundering and a host of other syndicated crimes) that undermine the social fabric of a nation-state through systemic corruption.

Perhaps this fascination by other nations with the American approaches to organized crime could be a consequence of “building a better widget” as opposed to any malevolent intent, such as promoting authoritarian regimes in other countries, namely “China and Russia.”

According to Woodiwiss, the “most popular accounts [of organized crime] are based on hearsay stories that slide seamlessly from undeniable to unbelievable.” With all the electronic surveillance evidence, witness testimony, and court documents that are available to researchers, “hearsay” seems to be a last resort in our knowledge of organized crime. As Margaret Beare points out, “…. ‘insiders’ accounts of criminal organizations can yield a great deal of useful information about the structure of these organizations…” And these “insider accounts” are subjected to rigorous cross-examination by highly-skilled defense attorneys who spare no words in attempting to undermine their recollections of events.

In general, there is a real danger for any researcher in studying organized crime syndicates and the attendant crime control policies in the United States, particularly if they have little or no understanding of America’s decentralized system of criminal justice; its form of criminal law that suffers from a degree of structural class bias; the varied and conflicting precedent-setting decisions that define criminal intent; and, who has not met with the various “actors” that comprise the “underworld”—which Woodiwiss might contend is in fact, the “over-world.”

And this is where Woodiwiss is at his best. In his view, much that portends to be organized crime enforcement is chasing the “low hanging fruit.” The real and more pernicious “actors” in this serial drama seem to escape the “long arm of the law.” Corrupted politicians, businessmen who are complicit in corporate criminality, and the law enforcement authorities who protect these criminal syndicates, are actually at the root of the problem. In Crimes of the Powerful, as his mentor Frank Pearce has chosen to label this new social construct, “the corporations provide the most efficient and largest examples of organized crime in America” — a view that permeates Woodiwiss’s analytical framework throughout.

Supported in part by Jesse Eisinger’s new Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Chickenshit Club: Why The Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives, Woodiwiss contends, as does Eisinger, that the “revolving door” between law firms and public service at the Justice Department is part of the problem, as are lost and bungled cases by inexperienced prosecutors, and a lack of “political will” to carry out politically precarious and often difficult and challenging investigations.

There is little doubt that Woodiwiss is certainly on to something that plagues not only the investigation of “crimes of the powerful,” but organized crime investigations in general. By collapsing organized crime into this new social construct, he may be attempting to reformulate a white-collar crime paradigm that perhaps, has constrained the use of the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute against corrupted corporate entities.

Yet, Woodiwiss’s sparingly mentions RICO in addressing organized crime, and seems to ignore the fact that business groups have railed against RICO, particularly civil RICO, calling for Congress to constrain its use by private practitioners in addressing corporate wrongdoing. It would appear that here the author should have devoted more substantive research addressing RICO and how it is seldom used to prosecute crimes by the powerful — particularly given his predilection for defining organized crime as corporate criminality.

Indeed, with all the concern Woodiwiss expresses over corporate criminality and the draconian and authoritarian methods used to contain organized crime, his failure to address this most powerful legal remedy to punish corporate criminality is all the more baffling and unforgivable. He could have made a more credible and substantive case had he focused on the failure of the United State Justice Department and state’s attorneys general to engage the civil aspects of RICO more aggressively in ferreting out corporate wrongdoing as well as political corruption.

The author ends his critique by citing both the Wickersham Commission and the writings of Dwight Smith in which both argue for “looking at events rather than people called organized crime…” in formulating organized crime control policies. To those who have conducted organized crime and public corruption investigations, events form the basis for prosecuting people. The two are not mutually exclusive, and essentially that is how investigations are conducted.

For those who intend to make a career investigating organized crime, this text provides a compelling historical blueprint of the forces one is up against in attempting to contain the most pernicious aspects of organized crime—public corruption, societal complicity at all levels, and the lack of political will and courage.

For those that intend to conduct research on organized crime, this text provides a powerful analytical framework in which to analyze organized crime. Marxist and critical analyses are valuable tools for understanding organized crime and official corruption. Woodiwiss serves as an effective and passionate communicator for this message.

The nascent researcher must, however, be diligent and cautious to avoid confusing the legal protections afforded those accused of crime with government complicity or corruption. The “power elite” deserve the same legal protections as everyone else—certainly no more, but no less either.

The U.S. system of criminal justice, despite its flaws, relies on such legal concepts as criminal intent, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, a preponderance of the evidence, and a host of “structurally class biased” legal terms that often preclude a viable and successful criminal or civil prosecution. A recent (2016) United States Supreme Court case involving the former governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell and his wife, is a shining example of how nuanced the law can be when conducting public corruption investigations.

“Crimes by the powerful” will always entail having the financial resources and political capital to ensure that the rights of the powerful are protected. The “low hanging fruit” on the other hand, will face a system that is permeated with structural inequities. It is doubtful whether Woodiwiss’s critique of America’s approach to organized crime will have any discernible effect on this equation. But that does not mean we should quit trying!

Frederick T. Martens (Former President of IASOC; Adjunct Faculty, Penn State University and The College of New Jersey; President, Complex Litigation Sciences, LLC)

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