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?

FITTINGLY, THE ROLLOUT was interrupted by an actual ethics scandal — the matter of City Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. and his aide, Latrice Bryant. Over the summer, Fox 29 reporter Jeff Cole and his crew had filmed Bryant shopping, gardening, and delivering beer to her boss’s house while officially on the clock at her $90,000-a-year city job. Cole’s next story included pictures purported to be of the councilman and the bikini-clad staffer embracing on a Jamaican beach. The pictures had been in the paper that morning. So instead of asking the good-government mayor about his newest blue-ribbon commission, the press demanded his opinion as to whether a councilman ought to be schtupping his staffer. As a councilman, Nutter once delighted in moments like this, when the public just wants to hear someone assert what seems so blazingly obvious: This thing stinks. Not anymore. It wouldn’t be appropriate, the Mayor said. For moral judgment, go ask the ethics board.

Which leads us back to Creamer’s office. There’s no law against “fraternization,” Creamer says. And no, he can’t go beyond that and offer his own two moral cents: “It would be inappropriate to comment publicly about things we don’t have jurisdiction over.” Sorry. If Nutter’s non-condemnation explains why ethics policing gets farmed out to unelected wonks, Creamer’s unwillingness to channel public anger shows why those wonks prefer enforcing narrowly worded regulations. It turns out he learned a thing or two visiting those other government ethicists all over the country. A law against councilmanic nookie, he says, would make legal nitpicking over which prison board members can plant political yard signs look rational by comparison. “Where’s the line?” he asks. “A flirtation? A first kiss? … When you’re talking about prohibiting behavior, you need a bright line.” For moral outrage, go ask the politicians.

Instead, Creamer offers a suggestion. “The rules are the floor of minimum conduct,” he says. “You can always hold yourself to a higher standard and even if you’re permitted to do something, decide not to do it.” Not that he’s talking about anyone — a councilman, say, or a comely staffer — by name. That wouldn’t be appropriate: “Of course, I’m only speaking generally.”

Michael Schaffer last wrote for the magazine about the pet industry.
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