Power: Is This Any Way to Clean Up the City?

Ethics watchdog Shane Creamer has slapped the hands of Philly power brokers like Johnny Doc. But are his bark and bite as vicious as they should be?

CREAMER’S RÉSUMÉ, SANS experience as a prosecutor, corruption investigator or good-government nerd, didn’t make him an obvious choice to lead the more powerful board. He landed the ethics position in part because national candidates wouldn’t relocate for a job that then lacked subpoena power, an investigative staff, and even a guarantee that it would last. But former board member and current candidate for D.A. Dan McElhatton, who helped hire Creamer, calls himself a fan. “We loved how analytical he was,” he says. “We wanted someone who could grow with the board.” Creamer immersed himself in the geeky details, traveling on his own nickel to learn from counterparts in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Still, the board’s transformation into an investigative body meant he had to re-apply for his job.

Against that backdrop, the board’s first two years look downright miraculous. Consider the battle with Campbell, which began in 2007. Following a tip, Creamer subpoenaed a series of powerful insiders — State Representative Frank Oliver, former mayoral candidate Marty Weinberg, and Campbell herself — to prove Campbell was simultaneously controlling the spending decisions for more than one political committee affecting local elections, which was against city law. It was the campaign-finance equivalent of turnstile-jumping, but it provided a rare peek behind the curtain of machine politics. In the end, Campbell (who passed away in November, after an illness) signed an agreement to stay out of spending decisions of the relevant PACs. A few days later, possibly aided by the unflattering headlines, she lost a close reelection contest. Soon afterward, Creamer beat out several dozen competitors to win the permanent ethics board job — which he’s used, among other things, to do battle over paperwork filings with Curtis Jones Jr., the man who defeated Campbell.

Board chairman Richard Glazer says he and the other board members give Creamer significant autonomy over who gets investigated, and how. In the process, he’s wound up as the target for some of the blowback. City Councilman Bill Green (a John Dougherty ally) says the board’s advisory legal opinions amount to usurping power from Council and the City Solicitor, and wonders why only reporters initially seemed to know what its upcoming meetings would cover. Following one of Creamer’s many tactical engagements with Local 98, Dougherty aides released a statement denouncing the board’s “renegade actions” as “politically motivated” (although after the October settlement, Johnny Doc praised Creamer’s professionalism). Campbell wasn’t as forgiving, decrying the “total conspiracy” to “shut down the machine so we couldn’t put our foot soldiers on the street.” A group of her allies even scheduled a press conference to denounce the meddling. Of course, Creamer wasn’t quite a household figure yet: Their press release blasted someone named “Sean Cramer.”

Much of Creamer’s job has nothing to do with brawling. One recent morning, I watched a group of city employees at the board’s mandatory ethics-training session work through a surprisingly tricky set of questions about whether Fairmount Park Commission official “Al” must recuse himself from deciding which South Philly streets get tree-trimming if he happens to be selling a house in South Philly (probably), and whether his subordinate, “Betty,” fits the legal definition of a “public official” who would be subject to revolving-door restrictions after she quit (probably not). Creamer says such classes mean staffers now know someone’s watching: The board regularly fields questions from city employees wondering if they’ll get in trouble for things like holding a bake sale to aid a colleague’s ailing mother. (They won’t.)