Earlier this week, local blogger Christopher Sawyer published a solicitation letter from Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, in which she clearly attempts to drum up business for 900 WURD-AM, a for-profit radio station in Philadelphia. In the letter, Councilwoman Brown directly asks people to buy ad time on the station. And Sawyer wonders, “Is it OK to solicit biz for a company from your office using city time/staff/materials?”
It’s a good question. So I reached out to Philadelphia’s Board of Ethics for answers. Unfortunately, I found none, because the BOE doesn’t really work like that.
Instead of direct answers, the BOE sent me a series of advisories that they provided to city officials and employees who asked them for advice in matters similar — but hardly identical — to the Brown situation.
For instance, Councilman-at-large Dennis O'Brien had asked the BOE whether it would be OK for him to send letters to area businesses soliciting sponsors for a race that would benefit youth sports organizations. No problem, the BOE told him in the advisory that it released.
"Many City officers and employees serve the public, not only in their public positions, but also by supporting private charitable organizations, serving on the boards of charitable non-profits, raising money for charitable purposes, and assisting with charitable fund-raising events," wrote BOE general counsel Evan Meyer.
That's all well and good. But Brown was doing something much, much different. She was using her position, her power, her taxpayer-purchased City of Philadelphia letterhead not for the betterment of mankind, let alone the city that she is supposed to serve, but so that a radio station could make more money. Plain and simple.
Imagine if Mayor Michael Nutter sent out a letter on his fancy Mayor of Philadelphia stationery in the next month, suggesting that everyone use his lawn guy for any landscaping needs that might come up this Spring. That would clearly be a major no-no. And so is this.
And actually, if you think about it, Brown's solicitation was about 80 times worse than this hypothetical lawn guy scenario. WURD is an all-talk radio station. WURD hosts talk about the issues of the day; they report and offer commentary on hard news.
Here's how the station describes itself on its website:
WURD has become a gathering point for the diverse voices that exist in the Delaware Valley. If you want to know what’s happening in the Black world, tune in to WURD. Whether it’s interviews with Heads of State, business leaders or local activists, we are, as our tagline explains, "the information station, committed to solutions."
In other words, Brown was using her office to sell ads on the very station that is supposed to be covering her, which makes this all "particularly problematic" in the words of Zack Stalberg, the CEO of political watchdog group Committee of 70. And Councilwoman Brown didn't even bother to ask the Board of Ethics for its advice.
When I reached out to Councilwoman Brown's office on Tuesday, her spokesperson admitted that the solicitation was problematic. In fact, he told me that "the proposed mailing" was supposed to have been "aborted."
"Office staff was instructed to remove all solicitation letters from envelopes," he said. "Any solicitation letters that were sent in the mail were mailed because of staff error."
Councilwoman Brown can blame her staff all she wants for this. But whether she decided to call off the solicitation at the last minute or not, the point is that that letter shouldn't have been written in the first place.
It's the kind of ridiculous idea that might have come to her in a dream, but that should have slunk off ashamed when she woke up the next morning.
That Brown did this at all is bad enough. But that she did it just one year after getting in trouble with the BOE for breaking campaign finance law and for lying to cover up her misdeed, well, that is downright alarming. And it shows that Brown just doesn't have the good judgment that the people who elected her deserve. She is either just plain stupid or a dirty politician. Either way, she's got to go.
Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.