The Fall of the Main Line Drug Ring

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police.  / Associated Press

Montco D.A. Risa Ferman with an AR-15 rifle and drugs seized by the police. / Associated Press

On the afternoon of April 21st, 18-year-old Timothy Brooks arrived at a courthouse in Ardmore, a mile east of his alma mater, the Haverford School. His appearance — khaki pants, blue blazer, square jaw — suggested good breeding. Walking alone, in handcuffs, he lifted his head and smiled at the assorted cameras before him. “Why are you smiling?” a reporter asked. Brooks said nothing and marched forward into the courthouse.

Twenty-five-year-old Neil Scott, Brooks’s alleged co-conspirator and fellow Haverford graduate, showed up looking less composed. Escorted by police, he covered his face with his blood-orange prison jumpsuit — his bail was set higher than Brooks’s, and his parents had declined to pay it — and told the assembled media to “get the fuck out of my face.” Then he popped out two middle fingers and concluded his remarks with a drawn-out “Fuuu-uck you.”

The perp walk was a fittingly theatrical start to the day’s proceedings. Scott and Brooks, along with nine suspected sub-dealers, were being charged with running a drug ring that aimed to supply marijuana, cocaine and Ecstasy to some of the finest high schools, colleges and weekend house parties in Greater Philadelphia. (The prosecutors’ allegations were outlined in painstaking detail in a 77-page affidavit.) Brooks called the operation the Main Line Takeover Project, and soon, so would everyone else. “Every Nug on the mainline is about to come from you and me,” he’d texted Scott last fall. “We will crush it,” Scott echoed in a separate text-message conversation. “Once you go tax free it’s hard to go back.”

Announcing the charges at a press conference, Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said, “You’re dealing with kids from one of the finest institutions probably in the country. To take those skills and turn it into this kind of illegal enterprise is very distressing.” In front of her was a table covered in drug-bust evidence: $11,035 in cash, eight pounds of marijuana, 23 grams of cocaine, 11 grams of Ecstasy, eight cell phones, one computer, one .223 AR-15 rifle, one .22 AR-15 rifle, one 9mm handgun — and, to emphasize her point, a lacrosse stick.

Ferman’s still life, with its discordant juxtaposition of semi-automatic weaponry and sports equipment, had the desired effect. The New York Times assigned two reporters to the story. The Washington Post ran an oddly gleeful breakdown of the case, grabbing Facebook screenshots and comparing the defendants to the characters in The Social Network. Gawker ran its inevitable “Philly Lax Bros Charged With Running Complex Prep School Drug Ring” headline. The Daily Beast published two articles, and Britain’s Daily Mail eventually joined the parade. CBS This Morning just sounded concerned.

The appeal of the story was obvious. On one hand, that such illicit behavior was being practiced on such rarefied real estate suggested a fascinating contraction, as if the Katharine Hepburn character in The Philadelphia Story had been caught taking a massive bong rip. On the other hand, the allegations corresponded neatly with our preconceptions about the corrupting influence of wealth and privilege. (Katharine Hepburn, upon consideration, was drunk for much of The Philadelphia Story.) Whatever the precise reason for its gossipy appeal, the case promised a dose of karmic justice: Rich white lax bros, the types who have long smoked weed and snorted coke to zero consequence, were facing near-certain jail time.

But there’s at least one sense in which the perception surrounding the case doesn’t match reality. Brooks and Scott’s blue-chip all-boys prep school was more of a safety net than a launching pad, a trusty home base from which to recover a measure of lost high-school glory. The story, accordingly, was never really about the drug ring. It was about the culture that spawned the scheme, and the way everyone around it — media, law enforcement, elite prep schools, guarded alums and tight-lipped Main Line parents — reacted after the whole thing fell apart.

THE GRANDDADDY of unlikely main line drug lords was a dentist named Larry Lavin. He started out as a pot smoker at Phillips Exeter, then moved on to pot-dealing at the University of Pennsylvania before ultimately running what would become the largest cocaine trafficking operation in Philadelphia history. Lavin employed, among others, lawyers, stockbrokers, music executives, accountants, fellow dentists and at least one airline pilot. His ring was dubbed the “The Yuppie Conspiracy.” Prior to his trial, Lavin fled his house in Devon, in 1984. By the time he was captured a year and a half later, it was estimated that he had been moving up to 110 pounds of cocaine a month to customers in 14 states, Canada and the District of Columbia.

Neil Scott’s operation was somewhat less glamorous. Home base, according to prosecutors, was literally his home, a cramped apartment on the second floor of a flimsy-looking rental house off Lancaster Avenue, less than 900 feet from the Haverford School. He owned a black 2007 Toyota 4Runner and lived alone with a small brown puppy. He wore sneakers and jeans: He looked like any other underemployed kid in his mid-20s. His neighbors suspected nothing. Hala Imms, who lived across the street, remembers only that she yelled at him when he once parked his car in her spot after a snowstorm. “I’d give him shitty looks because he’d never pick up his dog poop from the front yard,” says another neighbor, who asked not to be identified. “There were like 500 dog turds.”

Un-Lavin-like though he was, Scott seems to have drawn inspiration from the dentist kingpin. When detectives raided his Haverford apartment in February, one of the items they reportedly found was Doctor Dealer, Mark Bowden’s 1987 book about Lavin and his side job. Alongside it was more evidence of his ambition: Cornbread Mafia, about a Kentucky drug ring that thrived in the ’80s, and American Desperado, about a macho smuggler of the infamous Colombian Medellin cartel.

Indicators of Scott’s bravado weren’t confined to the bookshelf. One afternoon in late December 2013, two men in their mid-20s pulled up to Scott’s rental and climbed the wooden staircase to its upstairs apartment. They were there to buy an ounce of weed from Scott for the quite reasonable price of $215. One of the men — we’ll call him Jack — remembered Scott from the prep-school lacrosse circuit. Jack, his buddy and Scott sat down on a couch and shot the breeze for a few minutes. On the table in front of them was the ounce of weed and the scale Scott had used to measure it. Next to it, more notably, was a 9mm handgun. “He had his guns out in plain view,” Jack recalls. “White kids see a gun, myself included, they’re not going to cause a problem.”

Quickly, Jack says, Scott became a go-to dealer for Haverford students and graduates and assorted suburbanites. “A lot of the kids on the Main Line were buying from him,” Jack says. “Whether they knew it or not.” To be sure, there was already plenty of weed in circulation. As “Tom,” a current Main Line high-schooler, puts it, “Weed is very, very big on the Main Line because everyone can afford it. So many kids have come and gone and been dealers for a couple of months, made a ton of money and never got caught.” What distinguished Scott and Brooks was their attempt to control the supply chain in a market that was mostly decentralized, with dealers sticking mainly to their own schools and selling largely to their friends. Scott and Brooks, says one former Lower Merion High School dealer, seemed to be “unique in the fact that they actively went to high-school kids and said, ‘You wanna be a drug dealer? It’s cool, it’s going to be fun.’”

Brooks and Scott’s business plan was less reliant on the “skills” they picked up at Haverford, as Ferman suggested, than on the connections they had made there. The pair had both played lacrosse at Haverford, as had Christian “Stocky” Euler, a 23-year-old Lafayette student and alleged sub-dealer, and 23-year-old Chester “Chet” Simmons, another alleged sub-dealer, who was named in the prosecution’s affidavit but not charged. “That was such a tight-knit group,” says a 2012 Haverford grad of his school’s national-powerhouse lacrosse team. “They thought of themselves as elite. They had their own little culture.” And that culture, says a member of the school’s class of 2013, was bound up in recreational drug use: “If you took one sport and said, ‘Which one parties the most?,’ it’s the lacrosse guys.”

To a certain extent, by using alumni of the program to push drugs, Brooks and Scott were capitalizing on those connections, in the same way their coaches helped them find part-time coaching gigs after high school. But the way they turned their alumni status into a black-market LinkedIn has more to do with desperation than ingenuity. Scott had flamed out of the Connecticut College lacrosse program before dropping out of school altogether, heading to California, running out of money, and ultimately returning home. Brooks — a team captain at Haverford — sustained a serious injury as a University of Richmond freshman, withdrew from school, and moved back into his childhood bedroom.

Unlike Larry Lavin, the two men didn’t have other careers. Their connections to the Main Line, to the Haverford School, were all they had left. That, and a certain sense of destiny instilled by their alma mater. “Haverford builds you up,” says “Rob,” a recent graduate. “The expectation is, you’ll go on and do big things.”

HERE’S ONE INDICATOR that the Main Line Takeover Project wasn’t exactly the rich-kid caper it was made out to be: Wealthy lax bro number one wasn’t really wealthy at all. Neil Scott grew up in a one-story house in Paoli in a residential pocket adjacent to a retirement community. His father, a carpenter, sent him to Conestoga High School until his junior year, when he transferred to the Haverford School to play goalie on a lacrosse scholarship. A photo from his freshman yearbook at Conestoga reveals his jet black hair coiffed into the wind-swept surfer swoosh that was in vogue in the mid-2000s. “He was always a very cynical, sarcastic kid,” says one Haverford School schoolmate, not disapprovingly. Nobody I spoke with recalled him dealing drugs.

If there was a prevailing sentiment among the high-school classmates and college lacrosse teammates who had anything at all to say about Scott, it was that he was a mediocre athlete. Clay Hillyer, a fellow member of the Connecticut College class of 2012, calls him “terrible”; another teammate concurs, adding that he was a lazy kid with an occasional aggressive streak. “I remember him getting heated,” he recalls. “Like, if you fucked with him or whatever, he would kind of snap.” Also: “His room always smelled like weed.”

These observations turn out to be salient. After one season, Scott stopped playing lacrosse. In his sophomore year, he was sanctioned by the college for smoking pot and making fake IDs, prompting him to drop out and move back home. Within a few months, he had decamped to a white bungalow in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, a beach community 30 minutes north of San Diego, where he coached at various area public schools. Zack Burke, who had hired him in February 2013 to work for his lacrosse training business, told the Daily News that Scott explained he’d come to San Diego to flee the “drugs and trouble” back home. Despite that, he began working at a medical marijuana dispensary at some point. And about two months after he hired Scott, Burke said, he found him cursing at a 10-year-old and fired him: “He started losing grip with reality a bit.” Around that time, he added, Scott began dating an older woman who plied him with Xanax and other prescription pills: “I feel like she made him crazy. I heard he packed up his car and went back to Philly in September.” (Burke declined repeated Philadelphia magazine requests for comment.)

According to text messages released by the prosecution, Scott soon got in touch with his former teammate Stocky Euler, then a senior at Lafayette. Stocky, says a close friend, had himself lost his way post-Haverford, after leaving the Lafayette lacrosse team. “Yo stocky, it’s Neil from Hford,” Scott wrote. “Just got back from Cali, got a bunch of greens. Know anybody around Philly who might be interests?” [sic] “Hahah yoo brotha how are you?” Stocky wrote back the next day, asking, “Like weight?” “Doing pretty well man, yeah got a lot of weight. Constant supply. Great numbers.” Neil Scott was in business.

Meanwhile, Timothy Brooks — younger, richer, a more talented lacrosse player — appears to have backed into the drug trade in a remarkably similar fashion. Brooks grew up in Villanova on one of those wide, leafy streets where the houses are far enough apart that you rarely run the risk of having to greet your neighbors. His father, Clint, a lacrosse player himself at the University of Vermont, is an executive for a local HR firm. Brooks also transferred into Haverford, from Harriton High School, and played on the lacrosse, squash and golf teams, graduating five years after Brooks did. “He kind of exuded an air of being a cool kid,” says one former squash teammate. “He wasn’t super-intelligent, from what I could tell.” Adds one member of the class of 2013, “He was a strong, confident guy, really gifted athletically. For a while, for 90 percent of his life, he had success in almost everything he did.” His high-school Twitter account displays that jock swagger. “S/o to my boys at the wingbowl. Send me some titty pics,” read one entry from February 2013. A couple months earlier, he wrote: “If someone ever decides to write like Shakespeare again, they should be beat up. #hamlet #essays.”

By September 2013, less than a month into his freshman year at Richmond, Brooks sustained a shoulder injury. He underwent surgery, withdrew from school, then began living at home again. “That physical disappointment manifested itself a little bit socially,” says “Joel,” a former Haverford classmate. “I think he couldn’t quite handle it, between not being able to play lacrosse to the ability [he wanted] and maybe not fitting in right away.”

Nobody I spoke with could recall Brooks ever dealing drugs or showing interest in it. In fact, Joel says, once Brooks wound up back home, his initial plan to relieve boredom and earn pocket money was to create an Internet start-up — “something to do with clothes.” Before Brooks was charged, according to prosecutors, he was employed by a “local investment firm.” What Timmy Brooks, Neil Scott and Stocky Euler all had in common were lacrosse careers that ended prematurely, along with a certain entrepreneurial spirit that, under different circumstances, their Haverford teachers might have applauded: They identified a growth market and moved quickly, if not shrewdly, to fill a need.

IT REMAINS UNCLEAR exactly who conceived of the Main Line Takeover Project — that is, a drug operation designed to traffic in more than just a little Saturday-night Molly before an EDM concert. Scott’s and Brooks’s lawyers are jockeying to pin the blame on each other’s clients. “He’s a nice young man and comes from a very nice family and he’s sorry for what he did and he’s ready to accept responsibility,” Brooks’s lawyer, Greg Pagano, has said; on a separate occasion, he told reporters that his client’s “level of culpability is much less than that of his co-defendant.” Scott’s lawyer, Tom Egan, has stated that “Brooks comes from a lot of money,” while his client “comes from a pure middle-class background.” More to the point, Egan told me, “The Main Line Takeover Project — that is not a term ever used by my guy or what he tried to do. That is a term used by Brooks.”

Text messages and testimony provided by investigators show that Scott and Brooks started working together around mid-November 2013, for not-dissimilar reasons. By late fall, Scott told investigators, he had burned through the cash he’d saved in California and taken up pot dealing, since, according to the criminal affidavit, “everyone between 15 and 55 loves good weed.” And he could get it, en masse, from a guy in California. Brooks, meanwhile, told detectives he linked up with Scott because he was having trouble at home and wanted to earn enough cash to move out.

In October, Scott began driving to Lafayette College and Gettysburg College to deliver weed to two former Haverford schoolmates, Euler and Chet Simmons. Meanwhile, Brooks appears to have been working at least one of his own contacts, then-Haverford senior Dan McGrath. On November 13th, Brooks updated Scott regarding his progress with McGrath, in one of the earliest dated text messages released by the prosecution. “Just convinced my Haverford guy to build his empire and stop grams,” Brooks wrote, meaning he was encouraging him to graduate to a more substantial level of dealing — it was a plan for sustainable growth, essentially. The affidavit says Brooks referred to McGrath, who grew up middle-class in Glenolden, as a “highly motivated poor kid.” Scott, whose own socioeconomic status isn’t so different from McGrath’s, responded, “Sounds good to me. Like those kinds of kids.”

A week later, Brooks made an effort to solidify his partnership with Scott. “Idk what you make a week but I want to make [$2,000] if I do this,” he texted. “And there are still a lot of holes to fill cause I have to grow my business. I’ll be straight with you on how I flip it. And we can work the numbers out.” Scott replied: “I’ll help you with whatever I can, [$2,000] is definitely feasible.” After agreeing to buy a pound of weed from Scott, Brooks texted, “Like I said I’m trying to start a business and I’m learning how to run this 1 well.”

As the conversation proceeded, the two allowed themselves to think a little bigger:

Brooks: “When you were a senior at Haverford did u ever think that you could pull that”

Scott: “Only dreamed it There is a much bigger market than just a lb at each of these school. [Conestoga] alone is a couple a week!”

Scott: “Just have to find the right people. And don’t rush it. Everything has a way of falling into line.”

Brooks: “Yeah the question is, can I find the right guy that can run that operation”

Brooks: “Defiantly in time” [sic]

Brooks, according to the affidavit, soon began establishing contacts at Lower Merion High School, Radnor High School, Harriton High and, later, Haverford College. Scott, meanwhile, started branching out into Philadelphia. “My main line take over project is coming together fast,” Brooks texted Scott at one point. “And I’m telling all my guys I never want there [sic] schools to be dry. Cause I always got pissed as shit when I couldn’t find bud. But now it will never happen for the rest of my life. Cause I got u.” He added: “This last week has made me realize how much I love money.”

If you talk to enough Main Line kids in the age-16-to-24 demographic, it appears there was some vague awareness that Neil Scott and Timmy Brooks were, if not running a sophisticated narcotics operation, trying to pull something off. Jack describes what seemed to be their business model: “It was better for them all price-wise to work as a co-op, rather than small-time it on their own.”

Scott, however, appeared to fancy himself more hard-core than your friendly neighborhood herb supplier. “You have a thousand dollar bounty on your head, I will find you,” Scott texted to an unnamed minion. “Piece of shit, heard you ripped off more people on your campus.” While Scott issued threats, Brooks was the good cop, trying to play up the bling aspect of their trade. “One of them had approached a good friend of mine,” says the former Lower Merion dealer, referring to Brooks. “He showed him a large amount of pot, wearing a suit.”

Brooks offered the friend the drugs on credit, asking that his new sub-dealer pay him back a certain amount once he sold off a solid chunk of it himself. (This m.o. is consistent with how the prosecution alleges the ring was run.) But it seems Brooks and Scott got greedy, misjudged their market, or both. “They were encouraging their dealers to sell all these drugs,” the former LMHS dealer says. “There was too much supply and not enough demand. Somebody’s going to get fucked over, and they’re not going to hesitate to rat you out.”

Whatever the chain of events that led to Brooks and Scott’s arrests, they neglected to take the sorts of precautions that allowed Lavin and Co. to operate unobstructed for six years — or even to demonstrate a basic pop-culture understanding of narco-trade strategy. The alleged ringleaders used their own personal cell phones, and had packages of weed shipped to their own homes. Scott may have bought three books about massively successful drug rings, but it doesn’t appear he read them. “Think of North Philadelphia,” says Jonathan Duecker, special agent in charge of the state attorney general’s Bureau of Narcotics Investigation and Drug Control. “The organizations there are very good at counter-surveillance, being communication-sensitive. They don’t talk on the phone, they dump their phones. … On the Main Line, they’re not as good. They didn’t grow up being drug dealers.”

In January, less than two months after its genesis, the Main Line Takeover Project began to fall apart. First, detectives from Montgomery County’s Narcotics Enforcement Team (NET) pinpointed four confidential informants to conduct a series of controlled drug buys. The first informant led them to “M.G.M.,” a 17-year-old Lower Merion High School dealer who collected Air Jordans and flaunted his credentials under the Instagram handle “Hustle Tree Daily.” (“Honestly, that might be the dumbest kid I’ve met,” says a childhood friend.) Once they found three more informants, NET was able to build up sufficient evidence to confront Brooks and Scott over the course of a couple of days in late February and early March, and induced quick confessions out of them. Over the next two months, they rounded up the other eight defendants: Euler and McGrath; Domenic Curcio, a 29-year-old machinist from Manayunk; Willow Orr, 22, an illustrator from Point Breeze; 18-year-old Haverford College freshmen Reid Cohen and Garrett Johnson; 21-year-old Lafayette College junior John Cole Rosemann; and a 17-year-old Radnor High student. They charged the suspects not only with dealing drugs — and dealing them to minors — but with participating in a “corrupt organization,” the Pennsylvania statute equivalent of the RICO charges federal prosecutors have slapped on the Hells Angels and the Gambino crime family.

One rainy evening in mid-June, I drove to Paoli to seek an interview with Neil Scott’s parents. The previous weekend, I had already been rebuffed by Clint Brooks, Timmy’s father, who closed his front door on me the minute I identified myself as a reporter. It was dinnertime when I arrived to find Robert and Denise Scott eating in front of the TV. The couple quickly declined comment and shut the door on me. Several moments later, however, seized by some fierce maternal instinct, Denise Scott peered at me through a window and yelled: “It’s a pack of lies!”

WHEN I ASKED ROB, who knew several of the suspects, if he thought the Main Line Takeover Project had Breaking Bad-style ambition, he demurred. The better comparison, he said, was the Seth Rogen stoner-caper comedy Pineapple Express. Neil Scott not only admitted his involvement when confronted, but also told detectives he would have “loved” to employ a dealer at Villanova and was working on expanding to West Chester University. The rest of the alleged sub-dealers handled their arrests with all the savvy of someone who has never seen an episode of Law & Order. When confronted in their homes and dorm rooms by Montgomery County detectives, none of them thought to stay silent and wait for their lawyers. Instead, police say, nearly all of them copped to dealing drugs and admitted sending incriminatory text messages. Only “M.G.M.” tried to save his own skin. But his attempt to toss a jar of weed from his bedroom window fell short, alas, when the drugs landed in the arms of a detective standing on his front lawn.

Sensing an opportunity, several defense lawyers may try to spin their clients’ incompetence into lighter sentences. Attorney Steven Fairlie says of his client John Cole Rosemann’s swift cooperation with police: “That’s what a good law-abiding kid does when he gets caught.” (Fairlie admits Rosemann did not abide by the law.) Greg Pagano, Brooks’s lawyer, is doing his best to belittle his client’s Walter White delusions: “He was involved in the conspiracy for a relatively short period of time,” Pagano said in a written statement. “He possessed no weapons.”

The Haverford School, painted by the press as a $35,000-per-year mecca of preppy entitlement, has attempted to strike a similar balance between condemning and downplaying the actions of its graduates. “We will make sure that something like this never, ever happens again,” John Nagl, the eccentric first-year headmaster of the school, told the New York Times. (A decorated military veteran who helped to develop the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq, Nagl has been known to adopt an alter ego, “Slim,” who has made school-wide announcements in a digitally altered evil-villain voice. He also said “the United States will regret” marijuana legalization.) In the Times interview, however, Nagl pointed out that McGrath, the Haverford student who was charged, was only accused of making $40 to $50 a week off his trade. “We didn’t believe we had a significant problem,” he said. “And we honestly still don’t believe we have a significant problem.”

A recent graduate we’ll call “Alex” shared a similar take. “The school is just an absolutely incredible school to the point where it’s perfect,” he said. The real culprit in this story, as Alex sees it, isn’t a couple of wayward alums, but rather a ravenous public high on schadenfreude. And the real victim is the Haverford School: “When someone’s successful and prosperous, people want to see you fail.” I asked if he thought the school had a drug problem. “No,” he said. “Everybody smokes pot. It’s not a big deal.”

That Alex can assert that pot-smoking is rampant but simultaneously not “a problem” reflects, to some extent, the growing cultural and political acceptability of marijuana consumption. (Philadelphia’s City Council passed a bill in June decriminalizing up to an ounce of weed.) But it also suggests that Alex never expected anyone from his school to actually face consequences for dealing pot. As one Haverford parent — who, like most everyone else interviewed for this story, requested anonymity — told me, “I just think that everyone probably assumed [this drug bust] was going to happen at someone else’s school.”

In an attempt to avoid any more unwanted jolts to their community, the school and its alumni have assumed a defensive crouch. Nagl postponed a scheduled interview with me twice, eventually agreeing to answer written questions submitted by email. When I reached out to Nagl’s predecessor, Joe Cox, he replied amiably that he would love to talk but had been told by “school leadership” not to communicate with the media. Nagl also advised students not to speak to reporters. He told me he didn’t want them to “cause hurt to people whom we care about very deeply.”

The vast majority of Haverford alumni I contacted, likewise, were more than a little skittish about speaking with me, ignoring messages or hastily declining to talk. “I went to Haverford for 13 years and will send my kids there over any other school in the area still,” said 2012 graduate Henry Blynn. “I would appreciate if you stopped harassing my friends and classmates.” Recent grad Rob explained their reluctance further: “When these kids got caught, it was like someone in our family totally fucked up and now we all look bad.”

That sentiment surfaced at the Haverford School’s 130th commencement ceremony, which took place on June 6th at the campus field house. The choir sang. The boys received their diplomas. A speaker in a robe tossed off some quotes from Bob Dylan and William Butler Yeats. William Gray Warden III, ’50, was joined onstage by William Gray Warden IV, ’75, who was in turn joined onstage by William Gray Warden V, ’14.

The only way to distinguish this year’s ceremony from any other’s was a set of remarks made at the very end by the chairman of the school’s board of trustees, a lawyer named John Stoviak. “I’ll briefly just touch on the subject that’s been the subject of more media than I could ever imagine,” he said. “And I’ll declare from this stage, and from any pulpit that I can get, that the Haverford School will not — will not — be defined by the bad decisions of a few people. We as a community — all the faculty, all the parents, all the students — will not let that happen. We will fight to continue to earn our well-deserved, outstanding reputation as an extraordinary school with remarkable boys.”

BY QUICKLY PROMISING to study the matter and possibly undergo reforms, the Haverford School is signaling it can do a better job of living up to its lofty mission statement: “Preparing Boys for Life.” But the embarrassment and the soul-searching and the PR scramble also suggest the Haverford community is well aware that this story had less to do with the nature of the alleged crimes than with those accused of committing them. It was about where they were from and where they went to high school. It was less about breaking laws than it was about betraying the honor code. It reflected a community and a school that promise you so much that when your grand plans don’t work out, you instinctively return to them and try to milk them one last time. Because despite appearances, Brooks and Scott weren’t invincible. They were utterly mortal, facing a reality nobody prepared them for: out of school and out of money, with their lacrosse careers derailed. Not everyone goes on to do big things.

It had to be about all that, because it couldn’t have been about the drugs. Here is a list of much larger local busts that didn’t make headlines on Gawker: In May 2013, Ferman’s own Operation Weed Whacker cracked open a $14.6 million ring based in Blue Bell. The year 2011 saw the demise of a tri-county barbershop cocaine ring, from which four pounds of coke were seized. Just last May, 44 alleged members of an organization that had close ties to Mexico’s notorious La Familia cartel were arrested, a bust prosecutors said was the biggest in Chester County’s history. By contrast, less than one ounce of cocaine was seized in Operation Main Line Takeover. And yet Neil Scott’s bail was set at a million dollars, the same as that of the defendants in the Mexican cartel case and nearly three times Larry Lavin’s (adjusted for inflation).

Law enforcement officers not working under Ferman seem somewhat underwhelmed by the bust. “The size of the marijuana distribution operation is standard, so that did not surprise me,” says Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan. “The fact that it was happening at a school like Haverford also did not surprise me.” Duecker, meanwhile, is baffled that so much ink was spilled on the case. “In the context of the growing heroin and opioid-painkiller pill issue that we have throughout the state, what we had in that particular case was not extraordinary,” he says. “What was interesting to me was not the trafficking, not the fact that they were doing it. I was amazed at what a prominent story it was.”

For that, we partly have the prosecution to thank, not only for arranging its press conference for maximum public consumption but also for issuing an affidavit of probable cause so intricately detailed that one defense lawyer in the case called it the longest he had ever seen. When I suggested to Lower Merion police superintendent Mike McGrath that the lengthy affidavit proved not unhelpful to reporters, he smiled and said, “I think that’s why they did it.” Ferman, a cynic might point out, is up for reelection next year.

Outside the media gaze, the case trundles on, slowly and uneventfully. Lawyers are trying to avoid the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements likely to fell some of their clients. Timmy Brooks, sources say, went to rehab. Neil Scott is in jail; his lawyer says he’d rather begin serving his sentence now than get out on bail. The trial, if the case goes that far, may not occur for months. And the rest of the Main Line? “Kids will always want to smoke pot,” a high-school student in the area told me. “And if they get caught, someone will always come along and replace them.”

Originally published as “High Hopes” in the August 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Actually, Philly Cabs Are Great

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Photograph by Jeff Fusco

Early one morning in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a few months ago, I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to Logan Airport, eight miles away. He asked me how to get there. That was the first bad sign. The second bad sign was that he abruptly changed his mind about needing my help and decided to chart the course himself. Thirty minutes later, we were still in the car, making a beeline for Rhode Island. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Not long before, another out-to-lunch driver had piloted the trip to Logan at a pace so slow, I actually had to check to see if he was awake.

The point of all this is not that Boston-area cabdrivers are horrific. It’s my anecdotal “Exhibit A” in the case of Simon van Zuylen-Wood v. All the Delusional Philadelphians Who Don’t Appreciate Their Fantastic Taxis. Bitching about cabs in Philly is roughly on par with Yay, the Shore and Boo, Phillies when it comes to broad, unspecific elevator-ride utterances nobody will ever disagree with.

Read more »

We Want Answers: Eli Kulp

You grew up in Mossyrock, Washington. Is that a town of more or less than 100 people? Ha. Last time I saw, it had 498. My mom is from Holland; my dad is from New York. And they were sort of hippies traveling in the ’70s, doing their thing. They met and found this little plot of land in the middle of nowhere and bought it, put a single-wide trailer on it, and that’s where I grew up.

Read more »

Does Philly Really Treat Its Homeless Like Garbage?

In today’s City Paper, Dan Denvir wrote two items about various Philadelphia constituencies that, in his words, are being treated like “garbage.” One: Philadelphia schoolchildren, who he argues are being held hostage by politically opportunistic Harrisburg Republicans. (Last-minute cigarette tax notwithstanding, he generally has a point.) Two: The city’s homeless population. His evidence for this is an experience he had a couple weeks ago while biking along Spruce Street in the late afternoon, after stopping to help a man who was “likely homeless, very likely drunk and possibly mentally ill.”

Here’s his account:

Read more »

Frank Rizzo Jr. Profile: Franny Takes a Lie-Detector Test

Franny at the Rizzo family home in Chestnut Hill. Photography by Adam Jones

Franny at the Rizzo family home in Chestnut Hill. Photography by Adam Jones

Across his chest and abdomen, two corrugated rubber tubes. Pneumographs — to detect breathing irregularities. Wrapped around his upper arm, a Velcro cuff. ­A sphygmomanometer — to measure blood pressure. Beneath him, a motion-sensitive seat pad; wrapped around his ring and index fingers, black adhesive electrodes. He’s in a small room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, just off Rittenhouse Square, biting the nail on his left pinkie. Frank Rizzo is taking a lie-detector test.

The immediate stakes of the test are somewhat beside the point. The historical echoes, however, are not. In 1973, Frank’s father and namesake, the mayor, was accused of giving a city contract to the chairman of the Democratic City Committee in exchange for political support. To prove his innocence, he agreed to a polygraph test. He failed. The Daily News printed its immortal headline, and RIZZO LIED became the two most infamous words in Philadelphia political lore. Now the mayor’s son — Franny — says he’s running for mayor, too. And the fact that this 71-year-old snowbird retiree is hooked up to a series of wires at 11 a.m. on an April morning is an early indication that his own political identity cannot be disentangled from his father’s.

Perhaps any son of Rizzo’s would have had a difficult time emerging from the Bambino’s massive shadow. Little old ladies in black dresses used to drop to their knees and weep when the city’s first Italian-American mayor walked down South 9th Street, where his mural is now plastered. Liberals, African-Americans, good-government types — they abhorred him with similar passion. But he had a legacy.

For the first 32 years of his adult life, Frank Rizzo Jr. worked for the city’s electric utility. For a decade and a half after that, he served as an undistinguished Republican city councilman. Since being booted out of office in 2011, he’s been cloistered in the old family home with his wife, Debbie, and his mother, Carmella, living the dull, blissful life of an out-of-work politician. He flies south for the winter. He cruises around Chestnut Hill in his Corvette. He emails the CNN tip line to correct errors about their missing- Malaysian-airplane coverage.

Several months ago, he got restless and decided he wanted back in. Perhaps the surest sign of this transition came a couple weeks before the polygraph test, when he told me he’d be flying to his longtime vacation home in Aruba — not for R&R, but to put it on the market. “If everything goes well for me,” he said, “I won’t have time to use it.”

(Plus: “Things are pretty hot down there when it comes to sales. The Venezuelans are leaving Venezuela, and Aruba’s only two hours away.”)

There have been more official indicators. He switched his party registration from Republican to Democrat. He began consulting with advisers whose names he won’t reveal. He underwent an extensive physical. He ordered up red, white and blue campaign buttons that read THINK RIZZO FOR MAYOR.

Unfortunately for him, nobody else in Philadelphia politics seems to be thinking RIZZO FOR MAYOR. There are several reasons for the deep skepticism, none of them flattering. Even in his eighth decade, Franny is seen as a legacy kid without a real record to run on, while the “Rizzocrat” constituency that elected him to City Council, and his father as mayor, has long since disintegrated.

Which brings us to the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training. One morning several days earlier, I called up roving Democratic über-consultant Neil Oxman, who engineered Rizzo Sr.’s first-ever defeat, in 1983. Oxman was so incredulous at the idea that Franny could be running for legitimate reasons — like many others who roam the corridors of City Hall, he thinks Franny’s a political pawn, being used by an old adviser of his father’s — that he wanted him to reveal his true motives by taking a polygraph test, wagering $10,000 that he’d fail.

Franny, in a surprise move, accepted the challenge without hesitation. “One thing I’ll tell you, I don’t lie,” he said. “I would love to take $10,000 of Neil Oxman’s money.” With one caveat: “I don’t want it to be perceived as some kind of stunt.”

Stunt or not, the bet isn’t simply a no-confidence vote in Rizzo’s mayoral potential. The request for him to take the same test his father did 40 years ago — to prove he’s not a tool of his father’s former right-hand man — reflects a widespread inability to see Franny Rizzo as anything other than his father’s son. To a certain extent, Rizzo is confirming that impression simply by strapping himself to a polygraph machine, by exhuming the old ghost. But in doing so, he’s also placing a bet of his own: If he passes the test, if the headlines don’t read RIZZO LIED, maybe then, at last, he’ll have become his own man.

The exam is being administered by Nathan Gordon, a solidly built man of impassive temperament and sterling reputation. Gordon walks into the little room, sits down at a desk next to Franny’s chair, and asks him to close his eyes. Franny, sitting perfectly still, does as instructed.

“Is today Sunday?” Gordon asks. “No,” Franny says. Today is Friday.

One for one.

THERE IS SURELY SOME STATUTE in this city’s charter that requires prominent political figures to name their firstborn sons after themselves, thereby burdening them with a lifetime of anxiety over their unfulfilled potential. Meet Wilson Goode. Meet Bill Green. Meet Frank Rizzo. Meet their boys.

Early on, though, as if everybody recognized it was ludicrous for him and his mythic dad to share the same first name, Frank Jr. became Franny, and Franny he would remain, long after Rizzo Sr. died of a heart attack in 1991. Frank the cop with the skull-busting rep and the nightstick in the cummerbund was six-foot-three and wide, with a size 20 collar. Franny is slighter and about a half-foot shorter, closer in stature to his paternal grandfather Raffaele, who emigrated from Calabria to South Philadelphia in 1908.

By the time Franny was born, Frank Sr. had moved the family from South Philly to Germantown, and Franny went to a series of nearby Catholic schools. His 1961 yearbook at Bishop McDevitt High in Wyncote, just across the city line, contains only one identifiable photo of him: a melancholic senior portrait, all baby fat and high cheekbones, deep-set eyes and a tentative smile. Franny wasn’t a particularly good student, and after high school, at 18, he went to work for the Philadelphia Electric Company as a lineman, eventually wending his way up to the front office, where he worked as a spokesman until the early 1990s.

Franny says that when he graduated from high school, there was a good financial incentive not to follow his father, soon to be police commissioner, into the force: Back then, a beat cop made significantly less than a utility grunt working the poles. But according to his sister, Joanna Mastronardo, Franny yearned to join the state police and was discouraged from doing so by their dad, who worried his many foes would take out their enmity toward him on Franny. “My father would not hear tell of it,” she says.

Growing up Rizzo, according to Sal Paolantonio’s 1993 biography of the former mayor, was a gentler experience than one would expect. “He doted over his firstborn son, perhaps trying to make up for how his father treated him,” Paolantonio wrote. Once Joanna was born, though, Frank’s attention shifted away from his son. “Frank Jr. was a little jealous of all the attention Joanna got from their father. Joanna was the princess of the family, proper and proud, tutored by the Sisters of St. Joseph’s, pampered by her father, whenever he was around,” Paolantonio reported.

So Franny did what he could to get closer to his dad. In his 20s, like his father, he enlisted in the Naval Reserve. And when he was back home in Philly, he preferred riding along in his father’s cruiser to hitting the bars. On a Friday or Saturday night, when Franny might have had plans to tool around town with his buddies in his souped-up 1962 Plymouth Fury, his father would call him from the station. “He’d say, ‘Do you want to ride with me?’” his son recalls. “And I’d say, ‘Police Commissioner, are you kidding?’ I’d blow anything off to be able to be with him and just see the respect that he got from the men and women that worked with him.”

Frank Rizzo’s record in the 1960s reads like a parody blotter of a tough-on-crime cop sending coded racial messages. He raided the Black Panthers. He raided the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. He reportedly ordered his men to beat the “black asses” of high-school students demonstrating for black history courses, to break up the black activists protesting segregated Girard College, and to intimidate the black looters destroying white properties along Columbia Avenue. His brutal tactics ended up defining not just his electoral strategy — “Forget about the niggers,” he reportedly instructed an adviser during his 1974 reelection campaign — but his public image. “He’s certainly a Hitler,” former Philadelphia mayor Joseph Clark told the Philadelphia Bulletin in 1975. “He’s a typical dictator demagogue. He makes George Wallace look like an amateur.”

Franny, who like his father was a Nixon supporter, took such criticism personally. The first time he met TV newsman Larry Kane, in 1967, he asked him, “What do you think of this Rizzo guy?” without revealing his identity. Kane apparently passed the test, and the two became friendly, even going on a double date together. In Franny’s romantic life, Kane says, that same hair-trigger defensiveness persisted: “He had this horrible habit of meeting a woman and then saying, ‘What do you think of Frank Rizzo?’ And if he didn’t like the answer, I think he would basically leave the room.”

Apparently he didn’t find an acceptable answer until the summer of 1991, when he met his eventual wife, Debbie Altemus, a then-40-year-old divorcée from Upper Providence Township who barely knew who Franny’s father was. Frank Sr. had died just before they met, and the timing doesn’t seem entirely coincidental. “You know he didn’t get married until he was 63,” says his sister Joanna, “and I think that the closeness to the family is one of the reasons.” Even once Franny and Debbie began dating, it took them 15 years to get married — and they waited until then to live together. Again, Rizzo family pathology helps explain the delay. Debbie had children from her previous marriage, and Carmella Rizzo, an old-school Roman Catholic, didn’t entirely approve of her.

Once they did wed, in 2006, the Rizzos moved to that breeding ground of the Philadelphia B-List, the Residences at Dockside, on the Delaware River. Two years later, they moved back home. Carmella, now 97, took a bad spill, and Franny told Debbie he needed to be there for her. “I worry about the day something happens to my mother,” Joanna says. “I think my brother’s going to take it very, very hard.” Today, Franny, Debbie and his mother all inhabit the familiar Crefeld Street abode, which Frank Sr. bought in 1971. (Joanna moved away from home long ago, marrying Joseph “Joe Vito” Mastronardo Jr., a well-known gambler. In January, Mastronardo and his son, Franny’s nephew, pleaded guilty to multiple charges related to a multimillion-dollar illegal gambling and money-laundering scheme. Joanna escaped racketeering conspiracy charges but has been charged with evading income-reporting requirements.)

It wasn’t until his father died, in the midst of his 1991 mayoral campaign, that Franny even contemplated entering politics. In his 30s and 40s, living at home, he served as a sort of all-purpose fixer for Team Rizzo. “Franny played a behind-the-scenes, critically important role of just keeping the whole Rizzo campaign together. He was the infrastructure,” says Michael Smerconish, then a close adviser and a surrogate son to Rizzo during his failed ’87 mayoral campaign.

In 1995, having left PECO for a gig in Ed Rendell’s Commerce Department, Franny finally got the itch and one night planned a visit to a Democratic City Committee meeting to seek its endorsement for an at-large Council seat. On his way there, as he tells it, he was apprehended by GOP mayoral candidate Joe Rocks, who asked him to run as a Republican instead. Apparently, that’s all it took. Rizzo ran, ousted incumbent Joan Specter, and would serve as a Republican for the next 16 years.

When I ask Franny what his father would have thought of his running for mayor, he jams up and freezes, like some ’90s-model desktop computer. “If he were alive, I don’t think I’d have a chance to run, ’cause he’d be running,” he says, finally. It was out of the question, in other words, for both of them to share the same turf. “He would not want me to be in the same arena as he was in.”

AT 3:45 P.M. ON A TUESDAY in April, I walk into the Walnut Street office of Frank Rizzo’s ophthalmologist and sit down next to some people with actual eye problems. Franny arrives five minutes after I do, hustling across the waiting room to greet me. Just back from his jaunt to Aruba, he’s wearing a Creamsicle-orange Tommy Bahama sweatshirt, with a tan to match.

The plan is for us to meet here and head back to Chestnut Hill after his 4 p.m. appointment, to catch a glimpse of his post-political life. But first, there’s this business with the ophthalmologist. “There’s someone I want you to meet,” he says when the doctor, Robert Wortman, appears. “He’s been my doc for a long time. But the interesting thing is: I didn’t know it, the Mayor didn’t know it, but he takes care of the Mayor and me.”

These days, the similarities between Rizzo and Mayor Michael Nutter pretty much end at their mutual trust of Dr. Robert Wortman. Though everything about Franny’s present lifestyle suggests retirement, in reality he’s a political exile. In 2011 he lost his Council seat in the primary, accumulating an impressively pathetic total of 5,000 votes citywide. The fall from grace can be explained simply. In 2011, Rizzo did in fact “retire,” so he could collect $194,000 in cash from the much-maligned DROP program, a.k.a. Monopoly Free Parking for Philly Pols. The problem? His plan was to then “unretire” and continue to serve on Council.

The bad publicity around DROP, along with some feudal bickering between Rizzo and the (two) other Republicans on Council, gave the city GOP a couple good excuses to wash its hands of him. So they refused to endorse his candidacy — one ward leader sued to have his name omitted from sample ballots — and his ties to the party were severed for good. “In the past, I can tell you [the party was] in such dire straits for [mayoral] candidates that he would have been welcomed,” says State Representative John Taylor, the chairman of the Republican City Committee. “Would he be an attractive [mayoral] candidate to us now? No.” (Rizzo agrees his frosty relationship with the current GOP party leaders explains his party switch.)

Another reason Rizzo was never truly welcomed into the Republican fold is that he didn’t really stand for anything they did. Councilman Wilson Goode Jr. told me a story about the time the Republicans on Council opposed a campaign finance bill Goode had sponsored and instructed Rizzo not to vote for it. “That sort of pissed him off,” Goode says. “So he came to me and told me he was going to vote for it, because he didn’t like being dictated to.” As the anecdote suggests, however, he didn’t really stand for anything on the Democratic side of the aisle, either. “It was like a game,” says a staffer who worked for him in the mid-2000s. “It wasn’t about what was right or what wasn’t right. He would treat his vote like a chip.”

Rizzo’s lack of interest in governing, however, shouldn’t be confused with a lack of interest in the job writ large. He simply viewed his position in a very specific way: as a vehicle for doing thousands of tiny favors for anyone who asked. “He had the greatest constituent service in the history of City Council,” Kane tells me with Cronkite-level gravitas. And the bills he did champion reflected his passion for the most pedestrian issues. The legislative accomplishment he cites most frequently, for instance, was the establishment of a cell-phone lot at the airport.

Again, this instinct has much to do with his father. While Frank Rizzo the mayor has by now become something of an avatar for Philadelphia’s Nixon-era racial strife, his son remembers him in a different way. “We both always wanted to help people,” Franny says, nursing a glass of white wine and a liverwurst-and-onion sandwich during an early dinner in the back booth at McNally’s, in Chestnut Hill. “My father, my God, Simon, I could tell you. One morning, he was on the way to work. This is how kind he was. There was a loose dog, got away from its owner. My father being a smart guy, he opened the [car] door.” Dog jumps in. Dog shakes all over the notoriously immaculate Rizzo. Dog saved. Moral of the story: “I mean, what mayor would think about picking up a stray dog?”

This may sound like a whitewash — boiling down his father’s controversial record to an Aw, shucks yarn about a stray dog. That said, one oft-forgotten part of Rizzo Sr.’s legacy was his messianic belief in getting favors done for proverbial little guys. Even after he had been booted from office, Rizzo would patrol the city from the passenger seat of his sedan, taking calls on the car phone and dispatching foot soldiers to take care of odd jobs around town for loyal Rizzocrat grannies.

Frank Jr. fills a similar role as a perpetually on-call Mr. Fix-It for thousands of Philadelphians suffering from annoying but non- life-threatening issues. For them, it doesn’t matter that he’s not a councilman anymore. “I have spoken to him recently,” Smerconish says when I ask about their relationship. “Frankly, it was because I needed advice on a generator. There’s nobody better for something like that.”

Indeed, when (if) Rizzo makes a campaign announcement, the word “pothole” will almost certainly be invoked. “Steering around all these craters in the road, I’m saying to myself, ‘Why are we dealing with this? We’re almost at Easter, these things should be taken care of,’” he tells me, in what amounts to an early stump speech. “Potholes are not new,” he rails. “Why can’t we fix this?”

But where Rizzo Sr. supplemented the customer-service shtick with an otherworldly force of personality and politically shrewd law-and-order tactics, all Franny’s got is the potholes. When I ask him which political figures he’s been impressed by lately, he takes a long pause. Perhaps forgetting that he’s running for mayor as a Democrat, he eventually tells me he was impressed by Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, before recovering somewhat and praising the deceased Arlen Specter.

Franny is sensitive to the charge that he’s a lightweight. “They’re going to beat me up and say I’m not college-educated,” he predicts. On the other hand, after a couple glasses of Clos du Bois, a little swagger breaks through. “You hafta understand. A lot of these guys are jealous of me. And I know they are, because they don’t have the ability to do what I do. They don’t understand it. Their way of resolving a problem is picking up the phone and telling a commissioner to take care of this. And hopefully it gets done, and most times it never gets done. I don’t operate that way. It ain’t a done deal till I know it’s done.”

Chip on shoulder, Franny invites me to his old stomping grounds, to pay a visit to some old friends and enemies.

ON THE FOURTH FLOOR of City Hall is a large, cavernous chamber upholstered with portraits of former Council presidents. In the middle of the room is a round table in the style of Dr. Strangeloveat which Council members sit before their Thursday-morning sessions and avail themselves to the mere mortals of Philadelphia.

Here in the Caucus Room is where Frank Rizzo and I meet on one such Thursday morning. While the reunion tour is being staged in part for my benefit — I had expressed hope that we could do something campaign-ish together — Franny is also eager to glad-hand his way back into political consciousness. Of course, it’s a little early for all this, and Franny hasn’t yet made a formal announcement. Still, he gamely marches up to everyone he sees, telling them about his mayoral plans.

Bill Greenlee, the at-large councilman, walks into the room with his head buried in a sheaf of papers. “Councilman!” Franny shouts, sticking out his hand. Greenlee looks up and smiles: “Frank, how you been?” Franny explains my presence, rubbing his hands together: “He’s hanging out with me for a couple days before I do my thing.” “Oh, okay,” Greenlee says. “What’s your thing?”

Franny seems pleased when Council president Darrell Clarke later acknowledges his presence formally. But in truth, none of these guys — or any other Philadelphia political players — are taking his mayoral ambitions seriously. When I call Sam Katz and tell him I’m writing a story about Rizzo, the first thing he says is, “Why?” When I return to City Hall a week later, one councilman goes off the record just to laugh at the prospect of Franny running for mayor.

Ex-councilman and current son-of-former-mayor Bill Green, now chairman of the School Reform Commission, is less inhibited. “I’ll laugh on the record,” he says. “If you have a name and you can get somewhere to do some good because of that, that’s fine, I can respect that. If you have a name and you spend your time in Aruba and show up on Thursdays in Council, that’s something I don’t have a lot of respect for.” There’s more: “If he has a vision, it would be a vision of him being mayor, not to accomplish any particular end.”

Considering the lack of respect Rizzo got as a councilman — and now as a mayoral candidate — he might seem a hapless, ultimately benign legislator. But there’s a less sympathetic side to him that complicates the picture. Though it’s an open secret in City Hall, the public record contains but one examination of it — a 2001 Daily News article that began with the line: “This is a tale of two Rizzos, Frank and Franny, a kind of Jekyll and Hyde.” Jekyll was Franny the constituent-service master, the guy with the Rizzo to the Rescue call-in radio show. Hyde was the petty micromanager whose staff members were so traumatized by working for him that to this day they organize happy hours to collectively lament the experience.

The central issue was that Franny would ride them all day long — often from his Shore house or from Aruba — to make sure they had completed largely meaningless tasks. “What he would do is [leave] us these messages,” says one former staffer who sounds genuinely scarred by his tenure. “It would be like, ‘Call the guy in Chestnut Hill to make sure the trash is collected on Thursday.’” Then two minutes later, he’d call back. And so on until the detail was confirmed. “He’s just such a weak, small little man who needed to [exert] power over other people. Goofy stuff. Really, really goofy stuff.”

Former Rizzo chief of staff Stewart Graham, who now works for Councilman David Oh and was widely acknowledged as the brains of the Rizzo office, suggests that much of this is rumor and sour grapes. But he does confirm the broad outlines of the control-freak impression: Rizzo, he says, once called him 137 times in a single day. (He checked.)

“He was always fine-tuning every detail, so that made him a real taskmaster,” adds Fred Hess, Rizzo’s longtime campaign manager. “As long as you stayed on track with that, you didn’t have a lot of trouble with Frank. But if you made a mistake … Frank would come down on you.”

Rizzo acknowledges that he was hard on his employees, though he rejects the word “tough.” “When people like my constituents need assistance and help, there are some times when you got to give direction or make sure that there’s follow-through,” he says.

To a certain extent, the attention to detail may have been inherited from his father, who abhorred a car or a pair of shoes or a nightstick that wasn’t properly polished. But Franny’s need to exert control over the minutiae of office life may have also been a reaction to the discrepancy in influence between him and his father. “Frank was always proud of his father, always supportive of his father,” says Hess. “But you know, when the first thing out of someone’s mouth isn’t ‘How you doing today, Frank?’ — it’s ‘I remember your father, what a great man, he’s the greatest man I ever met’ — maybe that’s why Frank tries so hard to hit every detail. And I think his father would have respected that.”

While the Greek-tragedy element surely doesn’t explain every facet of Franny Rizzo’s personality, politically speaking, at least, it’s hard to discount. When he would visit his father in City Hall in the ’70s, he says, his father insisted on kissing him goodbye in front of his staff. “If my father wants to kiss me,” he says with something bordering on defiance, “I kiss him back.” “He was my hero,” Franny adds. “I mean, at 40 years old, it was corny to love your father the way I did. But I idolized him.”

Even so, Franny isn’t blind to the uglier parts of his father’s legacy. “My whole life, people have been forming opinions of me based on my dad,” he says, and makes a concerted effort to convince me not to do the same. One of the mini-wars being fought in municipal politics right now concerns Mayor Nutter’s proposed privatization of the city’s gas utility, a move Franny says merits consideration. This is notable, since it was his father who first took the Gas Works out of private hands, turning it into a poorly run patronage den. With respect to black voters, Franny makes an even greater attempt to distance himself from Frank Sr. When we visit City Council, he repeatedly introduces me to African-American staffers, telling me later that he wanted them to tell me firsthand what a good relationship they had.

Franny, in other words, wants to be recognized as his own man, but also doesn’t want to stray too far from the family name, knowing it’s his surest political meal ticket. “It was nice to not meet someone and they’d have to tell me 10 stories about my father,” Franny says of his early relationship with Debbie. “But listen. I never, ever cut someone short who wanted to tell me a story about my dad.”

THE PUREST MANIFESTATION of Franny’s unwillingness to carve out an entirely distinct identity for himself is, of course, the house. With its classic Chestnut Hill stone masonry and slate-tile roofing, the Crefeld Street home has remained virtually unchanged since Rizzo Sr. refurbished it (not entirely with his own money, as it turned out, in another Rizzo mini-scandal) in the early 1970s. The mantels are populated by little porcelain figurines Carmella has collected over the years. The kitchen, with its cheery yellow wallpaper, hasn’t graduated from the Technicolor era.

When Carmella’s husband was mayor, media were generally barred from coming into the house. Franny, who was nervous about letting me visit, eventually convinced his mother that I wasn’t simply a newspaper “reporter” but rather a magazine “journalist.” Though I’m not entirely clear on the significance of the distinction, even the light vetting process speaks to his self-styled role as the house’s new protector.

I walk in around 5:30 p.m., while Carmella is eating dinner with her two aides. As she finishes, Franny and Debbie take me on a tour of the house that culminates with his father’s old office. Mostly unused even when he was alive, the room now serves as a shrine to Rizzo. I see a copy of Paolantonio’s book on a shelf and ask Franny if he liked it. “I went into it saying to Sal, ‘I’ll give you all the help you need to do this, but I don’t want my mom embarrassed,’” he says, leaning in. “I said, ‘Please, if there’s anything about hookers or any women, you know, that you might stumble upon, I’d appreciate you being courteous.’” (There wasn’t.)

After we finish, Carmella is sitting in the living room in a reclining chair, her legs propped up. Franny motions for me to sit down on a couch next to her and gets her to start telling me stories. Her hearing isn’t great, but her mind is sharp. Among her reminiscences: the time her husband saw Mother Teresa’s ratty sandals and offered to buy her a new pair; the dinner party with Frank Sinatra and Henry Kissinger; those handsome embroidered white suits Elvis Presley used to wear. Franny paces around the room, sitting down and standing up, egging her on.

Eventually I ask her what she thinks of her son’s mayoral ambitions. “I think he would make a good mayor,” she says, speaking slowly. “He’s had a lot of experience. He knows his city inside out.”

Franny is standing on the other side of the room. “Thanks for the nice words. I’ll never forget them,” he says, looking at her. “I told you, I never expected you to be wanting me to do that. I thought you were going to say, ‘Don’t do it.’”

“No, if that’s what you want, that’s it,” Carmella says, as Franny walks over and gently taps the tops of her feet. “You’ll be a good mayor. Good, good mayor.”

BUT BEFORE WE FIND OUT if he’ll make a good mayor, we must find out if he can win the mayoralty. And before we find out if he can win the mayoralty, we must find out if he even wants to win the mayoralty. And to do that, he must take a polygraph test.

Back in the little room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, Nate Gordon sits before a black laptop that will reveal to him any unusually seismic patterns in Rizzo’s responses. I watch the interview on a closed-circuit TV.

Oxman’s theory of mayoral subterfuge — forgive the petty tribalism of it all — goes like this: Rizzo is getting into the race only to help the candidacy of the presumptive favorite, State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams, who is black, by peeling away white votes from more serious contenders. Why? Because he struck a deal with the guy backing Williams’s campaign, his father’s longtime friend and adviser Marty Weinberg.

“Has anyone encouraged you to run for mayor in order to aid the Williams campaign?” Gordon asks.

“No,” Franny says.

“Has Marty Weinberg asked you to run for mayor to aid the election of anyone besides yourself?”


“Are you running for mayor to influence the election of anyone besides yourself?”


Gordon repeats these same questions for the next hour, interspersing them with occasional placebos: Can you remember lying to protect someone else? No. Right now, are you in Switzerland? No. Is today Sunday? No.

When he’s done, a printer spits out a three-foot-long piece of fax paper blanketed with an incomprehensible jumble of numbers and decimal points. Gordon walks it over to Franny and shows it to him. At the top, in bold letters, are the words No Deception Indicated — Probability of Deception Is Less Than .01. “So that’s good?” Franny confirms. Gordon nods.

Rizzo passed.

Frank Rizzo walks out of the room and pumps my hand triumphantly. He says he wants Oxman’s $10,000 check made out to the Frank L. Rizzo Monument Committee. “My dad’s statue could use a little polish.”

Originally published in the June 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

Neil Oxman Challenged Frank Rizzo Jr. to Take a Lie-Detector Test

Across his chest, two corrugated rubber tubes. Pneumographs — to detect breathing irregularities. Wrapped around his upper arm, a Velcro cuff. A sphygmomanometer — to measure blood pressure. Beneath him, a motion-sensitive seat pad; wrapped around his ring and index fingers, black adhesive electrodes. He’s in a small room on the second floor of the Academy for Scientific Investigative Training, just off Rittenhouse Square, biting the nail on his left pinkie. Frank Rizzo is taking a lie-detector test.

Frank Rizzo Jr., that is.

Read more »

We Want Answers: David Devan, General Director of Opera Philadelphia

Photograph by Stefan Radke

Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Earlier this season, you hosted a “Tweet at the Opera” experiment and something called a “Robot Opera.” Do you worry that any of this stuff is going to look gimmicky? No, not at all. I mean, we’re not doing the “tweet seats” to be gimmicky. We are trying to do new things. We do them in a controlled way — the “tweet seats” were a section. We weren’t trying to get a headline out of it. We weren’t trying to be notorious. We wanted to do it in a way that wouldn’t disrupt patrons … and we were successful in doing that.

Your predecessor, Robert Driver, was once flagellated with a newspaper by a grumpy old patron unhappy with his attempts to innovate. Are you getting whacked, proverbially or literally, by more conservative opera-goers? No, I am not getting whacked by newspapers, frying pans or any other household objects from more traditional patrons. I think the reason is that we have been very respectful in our approach to innovation. The tweet seats are a great example. If you’re a 20-year subscriber and you don’t own a smartphone, you didn’t even know they were there.

Read more »

The Bizarre, Mysterious Campaign of Marjorie Margolies

margoliesThe biggest political race in the state is the gubernatorial election. The biggest political name in the state, however, is Marjorie Margolies— aka the soon-to-be grandmother of Chelsea Clinton’s bundle of joy — who is running not to represent the Commonwealth in Harrisburg, but for her old seat in Congress. Accordingly, she’s tapped into a wealth of A-list support: Bill Clinton headlined her latest fundraiser; Madeleine Albright was the guest of honor at an earlier event. Just yesterday, she earned a feature in the Sunday New York Times. And yet, her campaign operation appears shaky at best.

The Bizarre, Mysterious Campaign of Marjorie Margolies »

Rape Happens Here


In the early 1980s, staff members in one of Swarthmore’s libraries began hanging reams of white computer paper in the bathroom stalls, which students would use to gossip about cute boys or gripe about homework. A few years ago, pieces of white paper of a different sort began appearing in campus bathrooms. They’re printed up by the administration and emblazoned with the words SEXUAL ASSAULT RESOURCES. One of those resources, as of a couple years ago, was a student named Lisa Sendrow. Last spring, for the first time, Sendrow herself needed to reach out to someone whose name appeared on the white piece of paper.

Sendrow is a 23-year-old brunette from Princeton, New Jersey. Her mother is from Mexico; her dad is a Jewish guy from the Bronx. She graduated last spring and works in health care in Washington, D.C. If 3,000 smiling Facebook photos are a good barometer, her four years at Swarthmore seem to have passed by untroubled. But in the midwinter of 2013, Sendrow says, she was in her room with a guy with whom she’d been hooking up for three months. They’d now decided — mutually, she thought — just to be friends. When he ended up falling asleep on her bed, she changed into pajamas and climbed in next to him. Soon, he was putting his arm around her and taking off her clothes. “I basically said, ‘No, I don’t want to have sex with you.’ And then he said, ‘Okay, that’s fine’ and stopped,” Sendrow told me. “And then he started again a few minutes later, taking off my panties, taking off his boxers. I just kind of laid there and didn’t do anything — I had already said no. I was just tired and wanted to go to bed. I let him finish. I pulled my panties back on and went to sleep.”

A month and a half went by before Sendrow paid a visit to Tom Elverson, a drug and alcohol counselor at the school who also served as a liaison to its fraternities. A former frat brother at Swarthmore, he was jolly and bushy-mustached, a human mascot hired a decade earlier to smooth over alumni displeasure at the elimination of the football team, which his father had coached when Elverson was a student. When Sendrow told him she had been raped, he was incredulous. He told her the student was “such a good guy,” she says, and that she must be mistaken. Sendrow left his office in tears. She was so discouraged about going back to the administration that it wasn’t until several months later that she told a dean about the incident. Shortly thereafter, both students graduated, and Sendrow says she was never told the outcome of any investigation. (Elverson, whose position was eliminated by the school last summer, emailed me that he would answer the “great questions” I raised, but never wrote back.)

As the issue of campus assault gains national media traction, stories about incompetent or callous administrators have become bleakly — almost numbingly — familiar. But Sendrow’s account is also quite specific to Swarthmore. The unrest that’s roiled the little U.S. News & World Report juggernaut 11 miles southwest of Philadelphia over the past year — including dozens of allegations of student-on-student sexual assault, two federal investigations, two student-filed federal lawsuits, and four (unprecedented) expulsions for sexual misconduct — nominally revolves around a campus rape problem and an administration accused of abetting it. But the conflict in fact runs deeper: Swarthmore’s 150-year-old Quaker-inspired governing philosophy has collided with the far less forgiving demands of contemporary campus life.

« Older Posts