A Story of Small City Corruption

The Grand Rapids Water Scandal

The bribery scheme and the resulting events that I, and the handful of other historians of Grand Rapids, call the "water scandal" was a fairly typical instance of municipal graft. Outsiders of questionable moral character used the money of a wealthy outsider to bribe city officials in order to win a massive construction project, in this case a pipeline from Lake Michigan to Grand Rapids (meaning roughly thirty to fifty miles of pipe). When the scandal broke it rocked the city, as more than half the city's alderman, the city's mayor, the city attorney, and other prominent citizens faced legal action. The legal trials of the water scandal occupied the city's headlines for five years.

In this project, I argue that the city's social networks facilitated bi-partisan corruption in a fiercely divided political environment. Instead of an urban political machine, the city's elite, who were split politically but united socially, shaped the municipal corruption. As a result, the bribery scheme and subsequent scandal clearly reached across party lines. Furthermore, the city's social networks complicated reform efforts as men firmly inside the political and social networks of the city led the efforts for reform.

There are two ways in which to read the story of the Grand Rapids water scandal: Chronological and Thematic. Though fundamentally, the same story, each narrative brings out differnet issues.