Not video fiction, but a factual story of big-city corruption

Frontline: `The Politics of Greed' PBS, June 23, 9-10 p.m., check local listings. Anchored by Judy Woodruff. ``I felt like somebody standing at the foot ... of a volcano with the lava coming at you. There's just no way you're not going to get hurt.''

The co-owner of a collection agency is telling what it meant to be asked to pay bribes by one of the most powerful and best-known men in New York City government.

It meant discovering a whole city agency - the Parking Violations Bureau - had been taken over and turned into a profit-making business for corrupt politicians. It meant high-ranking officials exchanging bundles of cash in public restrooms. As this well-ordered and grimly revealing documentary also makes clear, it involved trying to do business in a system where the power of government is used to extort payoffs.

Eventually the co-owner ``had the character and the moral fiber to walk out on this scheme long before anybody knew about it, because it disgusted him,'' according to United States Attorney Rudolph Giuliani. But what lay behind the extortion is the startling subject of this useful program, an outspoken probe of conditions that led to the city's biggest corruption scandal in 50 years.

The focus is on Giuliani's investigation of two men, both Democratic political leaders: the late Donald Manes of the borough of Queens, and Stanley Friedman of the Bronx.

``I would have staked my life on the honesty of Donald Manes ... he's someone whom I would have allowed to be the executor of my estate.'' The words of New York Mayor Edward Koch - who in the next breath admits Manes ``was a crook'' - sum up the public shock and disillusionment over the Manes scandal. Manes was Koch's closest political ally, and the sad saga of his ``secret life'' of crime not only provides an inside look at the problem itself but adds a somber human dimension that goes beyond the purely documentary. Through interviews, well-selected footage, and blazing front page headlines from the New York Post and Daily News, the decline of Manes is traced from the time his endorsement meant a great deal to presidential candidates to his eventual suicide. When a Daily News reporter - a breed not noted for sentimentality - recounts the tragic story, there's a tear in the corner of her eye.

A similar and equally sorry story is told about Friedman - once the second most powerful man in city government and a lawyer making a million dollars a year - who is now a convicted racketeer facing a long prison sentence. Although the show sometimes has a bit of trouble visually dramatizing the flow of talking heads, the story's pieces are laid out crisply without being breathless, and the visual background is appropriate and unobtrusive.

The story has no tidy little moral, but at the end several observers do comment on the corruption going on in America's biggest and richest city. They stress the same basic problem suggested by the specifics of the program: the acceptance of corruption, the prevailing atmosphere of business as usual. Many people hope this round of indictments will change things for the better.

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