What makes a thief?

Why do good people go bad?

I know some of you believe that crooked politician is redundant, but it’s not. The vast majority of politicians, like the vast majority of humanity, are honest.

Leo Dignam at the Philadelphia Marathon. (Photo: CBS Philly)

At the moment I am thinking of Leo Dignam, 61, a veteran city employee who had risen to the rank of assistant managing director, paid $119,000 a year, whose chief duties were overseeing mammoth city events, such as the Mummers Parade, the Philadelphia Marathon and the Broad Street Run. 

I know Leo through the Mummers Parade, and I hope he is innocent. He enjoys the presumption of innocence, but he is facing federal charges of embezzlement and you know the FBI has seized his financial records.

As I said, I hope he is innocent, but if not — throw the book at him for abusing his position of trust, and stealing from the very people he was supposed to serve.

The events I mentioned are massive. It is to the city’s credit — which is to say Dignam — that the epic Philadelphia Marathon and Broad Street Run come off without a hitch each year. The Mummers Parade is smaller in scale, but larger in ego, and Dignam has managed to steer the parade through those straits without winding up on the shoals.

He was affable and unflappable, a steady hand.

Let’s not concentrate on him, as he has not been adjudicated and maybe it’s all some terrible mistake.

It might have been a mistake, but in recent years Philadelphia has sent to jail a U.S. Congressman, Chaka Fattah, and a District Attorney, Seth Williams. A corrupt D.A.? Really? 

Earlier, we have seen in prison jumpsuits Congressman Ozzie Myers, former state Sen. Vince Fumo, City Councilmen Rick Mariano, Harry Jannotti, George X. Schwartz, Lee Beloff, Jimmy Tayoun, among others.  

That is quite a fraternity and it proves that, yes, sometimes bad things do happen in Philadelphia.

These dudes happen to all be Democrats, but that’s not the explanation, not the sole explanation, anyway.

The same thing happens in jurisdictions in a Republican chokehold.

I don’t think it is the D or the R by the person’s name, I think it is the sense of entitlement that comes with power that is pretty much unchecked. 

The criminal activity is mostly a male thing, because more men are in positions of power, but that is changing. We will see, over time, if powerful women prove to be as corrupt as men. So far, it seems not. No City Councilwoman has ever been sent to jail, and there are plenty of them. A few have had legal scrapes, but no jumpsuits.

So what causes a good person to turn bad? Is it bad upbringing? Innate criminality? No moral compass? 

 I think it is three things — temptation, opportunity, and belief in escaping detection.

Someone once said you can steal more with a pen than with a gun.

White collar thieves prove that’s true. 

Lots of people may be tempted to steal, but they have no opportunity. Politicians like the guilty ones named above are given the opportunity to handle funds. 

Would they steal if they believed they would be caught?

I don’t think so. That’s why they invent a scheme that will make their theft invisible, hide it behind dummy accounts that can’t be traced to them.

The ones who get caught are proven wrong.

I don’t know what systems and procedures the city uses to keep an eye on your money, but apparently it’s not good enough.

No system is foolproof, but ours seems lax enough to incentivize some to take the opportunity  after they have been tempted.

18 thoughts on “What makes a thief?”

  1. I sometimes think the good-to-bad transition happens in small increments, without the initial intent for some larger crime. Perhaps some small initial transgression that doesn’t really seem that bad and that many would possibly overlook. Then another one, and another one, and another one, and the snowball effect occurs. Pretty soon – – – the FBI pays a visit. I’d be curious to know how this individual, if guilty, initially started down the guilty path.

    Bob has a very accurately made point. In my experiences – government wise – you are brought into a situation and you either accept or decline. Nine times out of ten, you accept. The people offering you compensation are well aware of you, your family, income, etc. First one’s chump change, then it starts to increase, and you are on your way.
    It happens across the board. Government, private companies, township sports associations. You name it. Somebody got caught stealing from it.
    Do you remember a local columnist did a story – a few years back – on a city employee that was accused of such crimes ?
    stay well,

  3. I cannot tell you how PROUD I am of Philadelphia, a city that has surpassed Chicago as the Oscar winner for “BEST CORRUPT CITY THAT NO ONE WANTS TO VISIT.” As a former (1969-1972) resident of Chicago under the original Mayor Daley, I lived in a city where the police actually solicited a bride in order not to write a traffic ticket. (It cost me $25.00 to avoid a speeding ticket, and $10.00 to pass my driving test. Am I ashamed of what I did? Of course. But it was the way Chicago worked back then.) Yes, Chicago was a corrupt city, but Mayor Daley’s mantra to his city workers was “You take a bribe, you make sure you do the job!” Philadelphia is merely corrupt; the people take the bribe, then don’t do the job..

    1. Vince,
      Don’t you insult Philadelphia’s finest ! Back in the day, we would stick a $20 bill between our license and owner card. He would let us know if that was enough.
      Then, as I was saying to Stu. The city’s plumbing inspector used to get a $10.00 “good day” tip. Until, a son of an inspector, wasn’t happy with the ten, so he turned everybody in for taking a bribe.

  4. Philadelphia, PA

    Dear Stu,

    You ask:
    So what causes a good person to turn bad? Is it bad upbringing? Innate criminality? No moral compass?
    I think it is three things — temptation, opportunity, and belief in escaping detection.
    —End quotation

    I think we first have to ask “What is a good person?” The answer does not consist in pointing to those who have never committed corrupt actions. A good person also exercises self-restraint. It’s a basic element of good character. It’s the opposite of “anything goes,” and “Whatever it takes.” Corruption arises basically out of lack of self-restraint –building into “rings” and on into system.

    We do have to take notice of the local politicians who have ended up in prison. Thanks for the listed reminders. But we also need to notice that the party seems unable to weed out its corrupt candidates. (The same was true when the Republicans ran the town.)

    You and your readers may find the following account of corruption of interest:


    Click and download. This is the Introduction to my scholarly edition of Lincoln Steffens, The Shames of the Cities, and I have been especially attentive to the long history of corruption in our fine city and state. The patterns persist though the people and party in power may change.

    Have a look.

    H.G. Callaway

  5. Philadelphia, PA

    Dear Finberg & readers,

    Lincoln Steffens asked one of the petty corruptionist who got caught whether he had any regrets. The answer was that he regretted not studying law, because he could have collected fees instead of bribes.

    If there is much petty corruption, popping up fairly regularly, as in our fine town, then there is likely someone higher up, the “friends in high places,” looking the other way –and perhaps “collecting fees”? We have to keep in mind that there is sometimes quite a delay between the “quid” and the “quo,” of “quid pro quo.” Also, it is not always a case of people passing envelopes stuffed with cash. There are many different ways to reward the faithful retainers, and if common methods are exposed in prosecutions, then, typically, more subtle means will be devised. If there’s a will, there’s a way.

    Still, I’m merely pointing to patterns. I have no doubt that the city is nowhere near so corrupt as Gilded Age Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.

    H.G. Callaway

    1. HAPPY MONDAY !!!
      Really, H.G. ?
      1) People get civil service jobs without going through the process. I call it the “end around play “.
      2) People get promotions usurping the civil service rules and regulations
      3) Hell ! The whole civil service game in Philly is a farce !
      4) too many “ways and means” to mention.
      5) In the private sector: I have a cabin your welcome to use.
      6) Of course we can make an exception…………
      7) For a small endowment, we can…………
      8) Lots more where they came from.
      H.G.. You really need to get out more, and see what is really going on in the city of “Brotherly Love”.

  6. How is it that politicians go to D.C. broke and come out millionaires? And did you ever wonder why anyone would spend millions for a job that pays maybe $150,000 a year?

    Newman: “Mr. Sutton, why do you rob banks?”
    Willie Sutton: “Because that’s where the money is.”
    Actual Q and A of famous bank robber, Willie Sutton after he was arrested. Might ask a politician: “Why do you fight so hard to get to D.C.?”

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