When a former congressman is arrested by the FBI and charged with 28 counts of wire fraud, money laundering and illegal campaign contributions, that must be a big deal.
In Fresno, it’s a two-day story. Headlines on day one, logical accompaniments on day two and day three have all but disappeared from public discourse.
There are reasons for this. One is that TJ Cox is not really a big name in local politics. The Democrat was a complete unknown before an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2006, did not run again until he (temporarily) ousted Republican David Valadao in 2018, and has not been heard from since his 2020 election defeat.
Another is that Cox’s 21st district, soon to be redistricted, barely grazed on the city’s southern outskirts. Meaning he never represented anyone residing in Fresno.
A third reason – and perhaps the most crucial in our understanding – is that Cox was elected despite well-publicized concerns about business and personal practices. How to claim Bethesda, Maryland as his primary residence on a tax form when he actually lived in Fresno.
None of that stopped Cox from being elected. So why would anyone care now after the feds have painstakingly detailed allegations against him that are in line with what they suspected all along?
Cox says the charges are a successful political work. But days after the FBI searched Donald Trump’s Mar-a-lago residence, raising Republican ire across the country, his timing couldn’t have been worse.
If convicted, Cox will be the last name inscribed in the long annals of corrupt Fresno politicians and public officials. A story that is matched by the community’s acceptance and forgiveness for such behavior.
Fresno’s colorful history of corruption
Those roots go back to the early 1900s, when Fresno was controlled by railroads, the liquor industry, and gambling interests, which gave civil servants their marching orders. One of the city’s first police chiefs, publicly censured for “inactivity in enforcing city laws” and forced to resign, later served on police and fire commissions.
During Prohibition of the 1920s, Fresno was known as the wettest county in California. A federal agent, who hid in the trunk of a smuggler, collected evidence of an illegal liquor syndicate involving several farmers, the mayor and a quarter of the police force. The result was indictments against 13 defendants. The mayor and the chief of police were unharmed.
Corruption really took hold in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Fresno police chief also controlled much of the gambling and prostitution. And when this boss was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for tax evasion and money laundering in 1950, his second-in-command got the job and took control of those vices by marrying the madam of Fresno’s biggest brothel. His tenure lasted until 1971. (In My Father’s Name by Mark Arax is essential reading for this period.)
Fresno’s tolerance of misbehavior by our public servants continued into the 1980s, when the city was led by a mayor with a well-publicized relationship with a convicted cocaine dealer. Also when voters re-elected a state deputy despite his two-month prison term for grooming.
In the 1990s, “Operation Rezone” dominated the headlines. A six-year FBI investigation into corruption among entrepreneurs and politicians resulted in 16 convictions, including the city’s most prominent homebuilder and three Fresno and Clovis council members. A Fresno councilman offered to sell his vote for a set of used tires; another did it for a suit.
A forgiving city, to a fault
One would think that such a blatant sale of our democracy would provoke widespread contempt. Not. Instead, many complained about the feds poking their noses into our business and having the gall to indict and convict our best citizens. A prosecution witness who worked in the construction industry had the words “FBI snitch” and “blood money” spray-painted on his home and car.
“It’s surprising how this community accepts political corruption,” began a Bee editorial in February 2000. “People who committed crimes in the Operation Rezone cases still represent developers before our elected bodies in Fresno and Clovis. And our elected officials don’t even blink.”
Two decades and changes after printing, every word in these three sentences remains factual.
Tolerance for the Fresno scandal shows no signs of abating. Jerry Dyer’s path from police chief to mayor hasn’t been hampered in the slightest by his deputy being arrested for distributing cocaine and marijuana, nor by some well-publicized issues from his own past.
Yes indeed. We are a city that accepts and forgives. You can tell a failure.
The general blasé attitude makes it difficult for allegations of corruption (especially when shouted by the loudest and angriest voices) to gain much traction. You have to come up with pages and pages of detailed, documented proof.
But even then, it will likely end a two-day story. Quickly absorbed into Fresno’s disgraceful roster of civil servants serving a largely uninterested population, and soon forgotten.