Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

The (non)Faces of Organized Crime in Northern Idaho

Even today, April 7, 2007, the mention of organized crime generates thoughts of the Kefauver Committee (1951), the Apalachin meetings (1957), Joe Valachi (1963), and more recently such colorful characters as Sam "the Odd Father" Gigante and John "Teflon Don" Gotti. Our caricature of an organized crime gangster is often an Italian or Sicilian Mafioso or member of the La Cosa Nostra (LCN).

The LCN was and is a good example of a criminal enterprise, a group of individuals with an identified hierarchy or comparable structure who are engaged in significant criminal activity. That definition does not stop with LCN. In today's world of organized crime, it includes Eurasian organized crime, Asian criminal enterprises, African criminal enterprises, and sports bribery.

But we live in northern Idaho. We don't see Mafioso running around on Sherman Avenue in Coeur d'Alene. We don't see Chinese tongs extorting money from merchants in Spirit Lake or Sandpoint. We don't see Nigerians living in Hayden and scamming folks from Athol. We don't see the caricatures with our eyes, so we ignore the possibilities with our minds. We don't want to even think, let alone acknowledge, that organized crime could exist in our area.

We're wrong.

Organized crime is not a caricature of some real or fictional man or woman. Organized crime is patterns of behavior designed to accumulate huge amounts of money and other valuable assets, legally when possible, illegally when necessary or when it would be more profitable, violently when subtlety fails or is inconvenient.

The accumulation of wealth is not inherently illegal. The free and open accumulation of honestly-acquired and properly reported wealth remains a cornerstone of the US economy. But where there's wealth to be acquired, organized crime will try to work its way into the wealth chain.

Wherever possible, organized crime will try to operate with as little public scrutiny and attention as possible. It will try to integrate itself into lawful businesses and corporate vehicles so it can acquire "clean" assets and launder the "dirty" ones (currency is not the only asset that needs to be laundered). And it will try, very hard and very patiently, to insinuate itself into the legal and regulatory processes and institutions to internally sabotage those processes' and institutions' effectiveness against organized crime. It will "groom" future elected and appointed officials, sometimes without the future officials' awareness. By the time the targeted official realizes s/he's been manipulated, s/he's already on the hook.

Organized crime in norhtern Idaho will not be a caricature of Marlon Brando as Don Vito Corleone in Coppola's 1972 movie The Godfather. It isn't that easily spotted. Indeed, if we wait to act until we can recognize its face, we will have already overlooked the fully developed body.

"Oh, come on! This is nonsense," some of you are saying. "It won't happen here. This is just little ol' northern Idaho, not New York or Chicago or Philly or Miami or Los Angeles. 'They' wouldn't be interested in moving in here."

Yes, "they" would. The social, political, and economic environment is right for organized crime to exist and thrive here.

  • There's money here. Lot's of it. Greed is growing like milfoil and is just as difficult to eradicate. Greed among community members and public officials is the nutrient that feeds organized crime.
  • There's little support for official regulation and oversight here. The "live and let live" philosophy that discourages the strict and consistent enforcement of federal regulations as well as city and county ordinances provides a safe harbor for organized crime.
  • Our state, county, and local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are simply no match for organized crime. Welcome to northern Idaho. Set your criminal justice system watches back 30 years.
  • The federal agencies, including the US Attorney's Office, are most able to effectively deal with white collar criminal enterprises, but Idaho's federal agencies are underresourced. Blame that partly on the people Idaho sends to Congress. Their campaign contributors are the same people who fear federal law enforcement and regulatory intervention.
  • Local and regional news media are barely aware of organized crime, perhaps because their owners, station managers, and publishers don't want to risk loss of social status and advertising dollars. Or maybe they fear learning the truth: Their own journalistic independence may have already been compromised by "them".

Northern Idaho is a fertile field, not a hostile environment, for organized crime. Once it is allowed to take root, it will remain here as long as there are valuable assets to be exploited.