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.