Michael Nutter’s Incorruptible Administration

Illustration by Michele Melcher

Illustration by Michele Melcher

This is the Golden Age of ethics for the City of Philadelphia.

But I’ll grant that it might not seem that way.

Philadelphia’s Traffic Court devolved into such a stronghold of petty corruption that it was given a mercy killing last year by the state. It’s also true that four lawmakers representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg were caught on tape taking envelopes stuffed with cash from a lowlife lobbyist-turned-informant. And yes, there was that business with State Senator LeAnna Washington a few months back, and before that, charges against State Rep J.P. Miranda for allegedly creating a taxpayer-funded no-show job to funnel money to his sister.

The FBI raided the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office last year. The feds are also poking around the Fattah organization, with a particular interest in Chaka Fattah Jr., the son of the Congressman.

But all of that is outside the orbit of City Hall. Neither Mayor Nutter nor City Council controls the behavior of state representatives or members of Congress, nor do they have meaningful say over the courts or sheriff’s office. Within City Hall, government is working more ethically and with far more transparency than it has in a long, long time.

It’s been nearly nine years since a City Council member was indicted, and the chamber is haltingly making more of its business open to the public. There hasn’t been so much as a whiff of public corruption to taint either Mayor Nutter or his inner circle. There is anecdotal evidence that a more ethical mind-set is taking root in the city’s rank-and-file workforce. Whistleblowers are tipping off city investigators at a prodigious pace, and behavior that was once nearly the department-wide norm — inspectors accepting tips or free lunch, for instance — has been drastically reduced.

The city’s campaign finance and ethics laws have grown far more robust than the state’s, and the city’s ethics enforcement agencies have more teeth and gumption than their Commonwealth counterparts. Whatever his other flaws, Michael Nutter’s leadership on ethics has been exemplary, and his success in cleaning up City Hall will arguably rank as his greatest accomplishment.

But will any of it last?

Outside the confines of City Hall — past Nutter’s reach — Philadelphia’s political culture appears just as corrupt as it’s ever been, if the recent flurry of investigations and charges is any indication. Next year’s mayoral field so far is a collection of political lifers with no particular interest in or special commitment to honest and open government (with the possible exception of City Controller Alan Butkovitz). And Philadelphia voters seem not to care about public corruption nearly as much as they did in the last mayoral election, when the indictment of State Senator Vince Fumo was still fresh in the public mind, as was the federal probe of Mayor Street’s confidants.

More pernicious is the idea, popular in some business and political circles, that Nutter’s shortcomings as mayor — his failures with Council, his struggles with city unions — owe in part to his distaste for cutting deals and his reluctance to grease the wheels of government and politics, lest doing so besmirch his sterling ethical reputation.

Put it all together, and one wonders how much longer the Golden Age will carry on.

“The most likely thing,” says Zack Stalberg, outgoing president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, “is it all goes to hell very quickly.”

You don’t have to look very far to see what City Hall could become.

IN EARLY OCTOBER 2012, chief of staff Sean McCray confronted his boss, State Senator LeAnna Washington. He later told state investigators that he was concerned about Washington’s use of taxpayer resources — office equipment and staff time — to organize her annual birthday party, which doubled as a political fund-raiser. It was the same sort of abuse of power, on a smaller scale, that did in former House Speakers John Perzel and Bill DeWeese (among many others) in Pennsylvania’s Bonusgate investigations.

But if McCray had absorbed the lessons of that scandal, Washington apparently did not.

“I am the f___ing senator, I do what the f___ I want, how I want, and ain’t nobody going to change me,” Washington said, according to McCray’s testimony in the state Attorney General’s grand jury report.

Within that outburst are all the basic building blocks of public corruption. Observe the self-aggrandizement (“I am the f___ing senator”), the profound entitlement (“I do what the f___ I want”), and the naked contempt at the suggestion that one conform with campaign laws and ethical guidelines (“ain’t nobody going to change me”).

The grand jury report was damning enough, and Washington’s city-suburb-straddling district competitive enough, that the “fucking senator” will be out of a job at the end of the year, having lost her primary election in May.

Washington’s guilt or innocence is an open question. But what is clear, and has been for decades, is that Philadelphia’s political culture is full to bursting with small, venal characters — most of whom you’ve never heard of — who imagine that they are somehow owed money, respect and even a little power in compensation for their long years of service at Democratic Party chicken dinners.

The Philadelphia Democratic City Committee is a clanky, stripped-down shell of the machine it was in decades past. But most of the candidates for public office in the city, high and low, still enter politics through the party systems. And in those systems, political support is still routinely bought and sold, and considerations like policy views and credentials distantly trail factional considerations, party loyalty and bald transactional politics.

And so some city pols, schooled in ward politics, too often conclude that there is nothing particularly wrong with taking a check from a donor and acting on his behalf, or accepting a handsome gift or wad of cash from a lobbyist and listening closely to her recommendations. It’s just politics, see?

But the party’s influence doesn’t explain everything, and really, it isn’t necessary to understand the existential source of corruption in the city. It’s good enough to know and accept that corrupt impulses are probably a permanent part of Philadelphia’s political culture. “There’s no way to legislate morality. We’re never going to completely get rid of the stuffed envelope,” says Michael A. Schwartz, the former head of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit and now a partner at Pepper Hamilton.

And that’s fine. The great, encouraging lesson of the past six years is that with vigilance, an ethically minded administration can keep a reasonably tight lid on corruption.

But that’s not the lesson a lot of prominent Philadelphians have taken from the Nutter administration. I spoke with numerous leaders in labor and business, with politicians and developers, and found many who think that Nutter’s emphasis on ethics has worked to make him a less effective mayor, and to gum up the works of city government.

None advocate corruption, of course, not knowingly. But they do talk about Nutter’s rigidity. And they speak fondly of Mayor Rendell’s flexibility, his fast-tracking of favored projects, his ability to get what he wanted from City Council. You hear this a lot: “At least with Rendell or Street you could make a phone call and get something done.” Nutter, they say, is too enamored of process, too ethically high-and-mighty to roll around in the muck with Council, too mindful of his image to do business with other players who favor a more transactional approach to politics.

This is a dangerous and damaging line of thinking, a classic case of false correlation. Running an ethical government doesn’t preclude adept politics. But there’s no getting around the fact that too many influential Philadelphians have conflated this administration’s emphasis on ethics with Nutter’s inability to enact much of his agenda. “I hear this argument a good deal, and I think it’s wrong, but I see how people make the connection,” says Stalberg. “In a bizarre way, the administration is giving honest government a bad name.”

Early impressions are lasting ones, and the early days of the Nutter administration were a trial, for a lot of different reasons. For instance, Nutter upended the development process — one of the most corruption-prone points in city government — shortly after taking office, and it was a long time before the new system was churning at a reasonable pace. The economic calamity of 2008 and 2009 didn’t help, further cementing the impression for a lot of elites that Nutter’s government just didn’t work.

That was true enough in the first years of the administration. But what about now? It’s better. Not perfect, but better. “It’s not like we’re pondering the creation of the universe. We’re not slowing anything down,” Nutter says when asked if it’s possible that his emphasis on ethics has made it more difficult to get business done. “We’ve got tons of cranes in the sky. Stuff is happening. The government is not in the way, or slow.”

Actually, government is still pretty slow, but Nutter has the right of this. Indeed, some of the difficult reforms that choked government most in the Nutter years — planning and zoning, a decades-overdue property tax overhaul, the creation of a land bank — have the potential to make City Hall work both more quickly and more ethically in the years to come. So does Philly311, the call-center service that, as Nutter puts it, “means that everyone has access to city services, not just people who happen to know people.”

The problem is that much of the Nutter administration’s other work to create a more honest city government can be undone all too easily by whoever comes next.

BACK IN 2007, a few weeks after winning the general election, Nutter announced he was hiring a pair of former federal prosecutors who specialized in City Hall corruption cases as his internal watchdogs. Until her retirement earlier this year, Joan Markman was the city’s Chief Integrity Officer. Before that, she was best known as the lawyer who tried former city treasurer Corey Kemp (and sent him away for a decade). Nutter gave her an office next to his own, and the authority to check in on pretty much anyone at any time. In essence, Markman — and her successor, Hope Caldwell — have been there to act as internal checks on unethical behavior before it happens.

The Inspector General, Amy Kurland, is more about catching the bad guys, both in and out of government. Kurland made her rep in the U.S. Attorney’s office taking down 13 corrupt plumbing inspectors in Philadelphia’s Department of Licenses and Inspections, and she’s been just as tough working for the city. Between 2008 and 2013, the work of Kurland and her investigators led to 54 arrests, the firing or resignation of 193 city workers, and a total savings to taxpayers of about $46 million.

Together, Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer and Inspector General have been one hell of a deterrent to bad behavior.

But it could all go away with the next mayor, and some of it almost certainly will. I’d be shocked if Nutter’s successor hires a Chief Integrity Officer. The position of Inspector General will likely survive — the office has its origins in the Goode administration — but City Council has previously questioned Kurland’s budget and resisted Nutter’s calls to make the office permanent with a City Charter amendment. The next mayor would have plenty of cover to neuter the Inspector General by cutting the staff or budget.

Nutter’s other ethics-oriented reforms are just as vulnerable: the broader release of government data (including corruption-prone contracting records), the prohibitions on nepotism and taking of gifts by members of his administration, and the regulations on outside employment, among others. All are executive orders, not law.

Optimists — and there are some — point to the legal changes that have been made, and to an ethics movement that predates Nutter. The city’s strong campaign finance law was created, not by Nutter, but by Councilman Wilson Goode Jr., and it faces no serious local opposition. (The U.S. Supreme Court’s views on campaign finance may be a different matter.) And this year, Council approved a new policy banning any non-cash gifts worth more than $99. That’s not perfect, perhaps, but it’s an improvement.

What’s ultimately most important, though, is the tone from the top. Mayor Street was never indicted in the City Hall investigation that dogged his tenure, and there’s never been any evidence that he corrupted his office to enrich himself. But too­ many of his associates were unethical; too­ many felt they had a green light — or perhaps just a yellow one — to better their own lots while in positions of trust and influence.

On Nutter’s watch, there’s only a red light. The Mayor has fallen short in plenty of areas, but he’s been a leader on ethics, and it shows. “It’s a daily focus,” Nutter says. “It’s a mind-set. It’s the question you always ask before any decision: What’s the right thing to do?”

That’s the right question. Will the next mayor ask it?

Originally published as “Incorruptible” in the July 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Dominic Pileggi: The Grown-Up

Pileggi outside his home in Chester. Photography by Colin Lenton

Pileggi outside his home in Chester. Photography by Colin Lenton

At the Court Diner in Media, the rest of the table orders chipped beef, pancakes and omelets. Then the waitress asks Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi what he’d like to eat.

“Wheat toast. Dry.”

Dominic Pileggi, 56 years old, is the straight man of Pennsylvania politics, a figure who at first blush is as dull as his breakfast in a statehouse overpopulated by the corrupt, the comical, and a large and growing cohort of ultra-conservatives.

By design, Pileggi rarely makes headlines. By nature, his thinking is nuanced and his politics are precise. He smiles and talks far less than most politicians. Actually, he smiles and talks less than most morticians.

No matter. When Pileggi, whose district includes parts of Delaware and Chester counties, does speak, the entire capital listens — very closely. “He is the most powerful person in Harrisburg,” says Ed Rendell, within seconds of being asked about Pileggi. “He may have been the most influential person in Harrisburg when I was governor.”

It would be hard to argue with Rendell. At the Pennsylvania Society, that annual December bacchanal of the state’s political class held at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, Pileggi stood at the front of a receiving line hundreds deep at his invite-only affair, the queue chockablock with lawmakers and lobbyists and executives keen to pay homage. That speaks to Pileggi’s political talents, of course, but it’s also a referendum on the sorry state of governance in Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth has rarely been known for better-than- average public-sector effectiveness. But the current rot goes well beyond the state’s middling norm.

Tom Corbett is among America’s least popular governors. Our Supreme Court is riven by a vicious feud and tainted by corruption. Tea Party conservatives have hijacked the House, and in the past five years, the General Assembly as a whole has lost five of its most ruthless — and effective — operators to scandal, including Philadelphia’s own Vince Fumo and John Perzel.

Indeed, Philly’s standing in Harrisburg has arguably never been weaker. Worse, every few weeks brings fresh news that the city’s delegation is not just impotent, but venal: In January, State Rep J.P. Miranda and his sister were charged by District Attorney Seth Williams with conflict of interest, perjury and criminal conspiracy. In March, State Senator LeAnna Washington was hit with felony corruption charges by Attorney General Kathleen Kane for allegedly dragooning her taxpayer-funded staff into campaign work. A week later, the Inquirer broke the story that Kane had dropped a problematic probe into four more city lawmakers alleged to have been caught on tape taking cash from a lobbyist-turned-informant.

And Pileggi? In this field of scrub pines, he stands out like a redwood.

Ask around, and you’ll find precious few serious Pileggi critics. He has fans in the press, who appreciate the remarkably strong open-records law he pushed through a reluctant Harrisburg in 2008. His caucus, though more conservative than he, knows he won’t charge ahead without them. Democrats are almost pathetically appreciative of Pileggi’s willingness to include them, to seriously think over their arguments. And Philadelphia’s leaders consider him nothing short of the best friend the city has in the state’s Republican power structure.

“He’s the competent grown-up,” a Democratic Senate staffer says, sighing reluctantly. “You have a dysfunctional House, you have a governor and administration that after four years don’t know what they’re doing. And you have Pileggi.”

Atlantic City’s New Don

Atlantic City New Jersey's Gay Republican Mayor Colin Lenton

No day at the beach: With A.C.’s troubles, Guardian has his work cut out for him
Photo by Colin Lenton

Long after most of the other dignitaries—particularly the white ones—have quietly exited, Mayor Don Guardian remains in a front pew at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church on Arctic Avenue in Atlantic City.

The ceremony honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is two hours in, and shows no signs of stopping soon. The tenor and message of the ceremony would be familiar to anyone who has spent time in an African-American church in a city with as many problems as Atlantic City. There is talk of the progress made toward equality, and the challenges that remain, but also frequent mentions of street violence, unemployment, poverty and hard times.

Speaker after speaker looks Guardian’s way. Welcome, Mayor, they say to the tall, white, impeccably dressed Republican with a brown homburg in his lap. Their voices are warm, the overtures are clearly genuine—and yet there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of bewilderment, as though they’re not entirely sure how Guardian came to be sitting there.
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Philadelphia’s School Crisis: A City On The Brink

Photography by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

My family and I moved out of Philadelphia last year. We did so reluctantly, and with a crippling heaping of guilt.

It wasn’t the crime, or the taxes, or the grit. No, we left for the same reason that untold thousands have decamped for the suburbs before us: the crummy state of the city’s public schools, a chronic and seemingly immutable fact of life in Philadelphia.

The failings go way beyond the typical struggles of a big urban district. In December, the latest national assessment found that just 14 percent of Philadelphia fourth-graders were proficient or better at reading, compared to 26 percent in other big cities and 34 percent nationally. Of the 25 largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia ranks 22nd in college degree attainment. Graduates of the School District of Philadelphia are particularly bad off; only about 10 percent of district alums go on to get degrees.

Still, it wasn’t the statistics that drove us away. It was the deflating sense that there was no clear and affordable path for our two young kids to get the education they need—particularly our son, who has some special needs. Despite our love for the city, our belief that Philadelphia is genuinely on the rise, and endless conversations in which we tried to rationalize staying, my wife and I decided we had to leave. The day the moving van arrived, I didn’t feel angry so much as I felt ashamed. That embarrassment is, I think, not entirely uncommon. And it’s a sign that the failings of the city’s schools are damaging Philadelphia even more than in the past.

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Helen Gym: The Agitator

 

Helen Gym Parents United P.A.

Photograph by Colin Lenton

Helen Gym advances, and Mayor Nutter inches warily back. She waves a thick stack of papers at him, each sheath a complaint lodged by parents lamenting the calamitous conditions in Philadelphia’s reeling public schools. There’s the kid with dangerous asthma at the school without a nurse on hand. The dyslexic, orphaned high-school senior applying for colleges with no counselor to lean on. The bullying victim who fled Overbrook High only to find it impossible to enroll at another school.

“This is what we’re fighting against,” Gym tells Nutter. The Mayor is just a few yards from his office door, but he’s the one shifting his feet, looking to get away.

Minutes earlier, Gym had wrapped up a news conference in the ornate Mayor’s Reception Room, where, with the assistance of City Council, she’d usurped a podium usually used by Nutter and his invited guests. Gym and her allies were there to tout their latest pressure tactic: written complaints designed to compel the state to meet basic education standards and shake loose some badly needed dollars for the district.

“It would be nice to have your support, Mayor,” Gym tells him. Nutter issues a few noncommittal mumbles, cleans his glasses, and back-steps for the stairway. Gym shrugs. Powerful figures often look for the exits when she approaches.

That’s what happens when you develop a rep as perhaps Philadelphia’s preeminent public agitator. Relentless, whip-smart, meticulously prepared and utterly fearless, Gym—a private citizen who works without the heft of any meaningful institutional support—has managed to build herself one of the city’s largest bully pulpits.

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How Paul Levy Created Center City

Photo-illustration by Nicolas Del Pesco.

Photo-illustration by Nicolas Del Pesco.

The smell. what could he do about the smell?

It was 1989, and Ron Rubin, the developer and quintessential Philadelphia power player, was lobbying Tiffany & Co. to open a shop in his newly renovated Bellevue-Stratford Hotel. A lot was riding on the Bellevue’s success—not just for Rubin, but for the whole of Center City. Rubin had snapped up the storied hotel on the cheap in 1978, just two years after the Legionnaire’s disease outbreak killed 34 guests. And he’d spent the past decade pouring cash into the old grande dame of Broad Street, with little to show for it. His company had missed loan payments. Too many rooms were vacant. Doubters said the building could never again make it as a hotel.

But Rubin was all in, to the tune of $100 million. He had converted 55,000 square feet into new retail space. And he wanted Tiffany & Co. as his anchor tenant, as proof that Center City could still attract an elite retailer.

But what to do about the stench?
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Ed Rendell Addresses Rumors He’s Running: Only If Things Got Really, Abysmally Bad

AP-rendell-940Just how desperate is Philadelphia?

Come 2015, the answer to that question might determine whether or not Ed Rendell seeks a third term as mayor.

In recent days, Rendell has downplayed his interest in returning to City Hall. He did so again in a brief phone interview this morning, telling me: “It’s not something that anybody should be thinking about.”

But Rendell does seem to be giving the idea some real thought.
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Kathleen Kane’s Gay Marriage Mutiny

kathleen-kane-attorney-general-gay-marriage

At the bottom of a steep block on the west side of Scranton, next to a clapboard home with peeling white paint, there’s a pizza shop called Maroni’s. Inside, takeout boxes are piled in towers that nearly reach the ceiling, and Carmen Pellegrino, who’s owned the place for 31 years, is pounding dough and spreading cheese for a steady trickle of customers hungry for nourishment after praying at the Solemn Novena for Saint Ann at the basilica up the hill.

It seems an odd spot to meet the dynamic and glamorous Attorney General Kathleen Granahan Kane, a woman who, in the past 18 months, has emerged from nowhere to become Pennsylvania’s fastest-rising political star, Governor Tom Corbett’s nemesis, and, reputedly, a potential candidate for every higher office in the land, from governor to U.S. senator to—no kidding—a spot on a presidential ticket.

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Dick Morris In Exile

What is former Fox pundit Dick Morris doing on the radio in Philadelphia?

Dick Morris punched his ticket for Philadelphia in the week leading up to the presidential election. Most pundits expected a close finish. A good number predicted a thin victory for the President. Some, like the New York Times’s Nate Silver, foresaw an easy Obama win.

But not Dick. He’d been at the head of the GOP’s blithely delusional brigade all year long. The eve of the election was no time to quit. While others equivocated, Morris doubled down.

“We’re going to win by a landslide,” he said to Fox News’s Greta van Susteren, with a grin that seemed to stretch a foot wide. “It would be the biggest surprise in recent political history.” Up flashed an electoral map covered in Romney red. Morris proceeded to jump through a series of contorted logical hoops, citing the skewing of one poll and the unjust tweaking of another survey, and finished by predicting his candidate would not just take the battlegrounds of Florida, Virginia and Ohio, but would best Obama in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, New Hampshire and, yes, even Pennsylvania.

And then, the vote. Overnight, Morris became a national laughingstock. He was “a joke to every smart conservative in Washington and most every smart conservative under the age of 40,” Ross Douthat told Politico. He was the “king of wrong mountain,” said Jon Stewart.

Morris had, of course, long been reviled by many Democrats for selling out his old boss, Bill Clinton, but now he was suddenly persona non grata among respectable Republicans, too. GOP opinion-makers turned on him like he was a quack selling miracle tonic.

“I got to tell you something, people are furious with you right now,” Sean Hannity told Morris on Fox after the election.

That was among his last appearances on the network. After logging almost 15 years and some 3,000 interviews as a paid Fox contributor, Morris had been blacklisted. Fox made it formal in February, when it declined to renew his contract. It was a rare instance of actual accountability in the typically consequence-free world of political punditry. Dick Morris was so full of bullshit that even Fox was embarrassed to have him.

But not, apparently, Philadelphia.

Each weekday afternoon, from 2 to 6 p.m., Morris can now be heard on WPHT 1210’s afternoon call-in show, replacing Michael Smerconish, who jumped to satellite radio in mid-April.

As tempting as it is to dismiss Morris as a sideshow, that would be a mistake. Despite his spectacular flop last fall, Morris has an instinctual understanding of politics that shouldn’t be underestimated, particularly in a city with relatively few veterans of the Washington game. And Morris—unlike so many of the leading national blowhards—was once a political consultant of genuine consequence. Indeed, he arguably had as much to do with the nature of our national political culture—such as it is—as any consultant alive.

What’s more, there’s no indication Morris is just using WPHT as a pit stop. His eventual ambition is to build a syndicated empire, headquartered here in Philadelphia. And he is spending a surprisingly large chunk of airtime on thoroughly local affairs, from municipal tax policy to allegations of anti-Semitism on the Evesham school board.

Make no mistake: Dick Morris—a man ejected from the ranks of the national punditocracy as a charlatan and opportunistic say-anything hack—is attempting to inject himself into the already sordid world of Philadelphia politics. This could go one of two ways. Morris has the potential to emerge as a sharp, uncensored observer in a city with a circumspect civic dialogue—the leading local voice of the angry right, tipping over sacred political cows in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. Or Morris could continue prancing down the path of glib, credibility-shattering commentary.

Either way, Morris’s fate as a public figure now looks to be in the hands of Philadelphia and its suburbs. Which, yes, sounds absurd, but no more absurd than anything else in Dick Morris’s life.

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