Contrarian: Reform the Reformers

Late February offered a single bright moment during what was an otherwise embarrassing week for the city. While TV news played wiretaps of the Mayor’s finance director trying to keep Ron White’s roaming mitts out of the treasury, the city’s reform movement finally stirred from its years-long narcoleptic stupor. The good-government nonprofit group the Committee of Seventy hired Zack Stalberg, recently resigned editor of the Daily News, to lead a new crusade for public disclosure and fiscal transparency in City Hall.

Sunlight is the best disinfectant. That’s the dictum of every political reform group. So imagine the surprise of City Hall reporters when they inquired about Stalberg’s new salary. Edward Dunham, the Committee of Seventy chairman, wouldn’t say.

That’s a mere snapshot of what Zack Stalberg is up against in this new career of his. He’s got just three employees, including himself, and a top-heavy board with no instincts for leading by example. Seventy, as it’s known, wants to give every politician a fiscal colonscopy, but when it comes to a minor detail like its own CEO’s pay, Seventy’s not telling.

It’s an attitude that points to Seventy’s crippling problem. This unelected band of reformers needs more reforming than the ethically suspect folks we vote for. Take a peek at Seventy’s attorney-laden list of board members, and you see some of the same big law firms named in write-ups about lavish campaign contributions, “pinstripe patronage” and fat no-bid contracts. There are two members from Cozen O’Connor, two from Klett Rooney, and three from Duane Morris, including chairman Dunham. Zack Stalberg could strike a good-sized blow for honest government if he simply told his board members to head back to work and ask their colleagues to stop making such whores of our politicians.

Take the case of State Senator Vince Fumo, certainly one of the city’s most ethically ambiguous political figures. Fumo is currently under federal investigation for getting PECO to give $17 million in secret gifts to a nonprofit he controls. He has bragged that patronage is just “one tool in an arsenal of a thousand” that he uses to wield his power. He reigns supreme as the state capitol’s king of WAMs — “walking-around money,” doled out to pet constituents and denounced by Harrisburg reformers as tax-funded political payouts. Twelve years ago, Fumo joined the local Dilworth Paxson law firm, which has since enjoyed a steady stream of lucrative bond work from the many state and local agencies where Fumo has pull.

A self-respecting reform group might want to put some distance between itself and Prince Vince. Seventy is not that group. Stephen Harmelin, Dilworth Paxson’s managing partner (and Vince Fumo’s paymaster), sits on Seventy’s board. So does James Schwartzman, Fumo’s pick for the SEPTA board. The assistant general counsel of PECO used to be a member of Seventy, too, right around the time PECO was cutting the deal to be Fumo’s secret Santa. On the controversial subject of WAM payouts, Seventy has been silent, perhaps because Seventy has snagged thousands of WAM dollars for itself, thanks to Vince Fumo.

Years ago, I was researching a story documenting Fumo’s chronic WAM addiction when I stumbled across a $15,000 grant earmarked for the Committee of Seventy. I could hardly believe my eyes. Seventy’s website boasted of its independence from government funding. It still does today. Yet this WAM grant had quietly gone through about two years earlier, escaping the notice of the newspapers. Seventy had a secret Santa of its own: Vince.

I called Fred Voigt, Seventy’s longtime director. He was indignant that I would raise questions about a good-government group getting a grant through Vince Fumo on the down-low. The phone call was one of those
Philadelphia-through-the-looking-glass experiences. I was explaining to a self-­proclaimed “public watchdog” that maybe watchdogs shouldn’t be getting secret doggie treats from the people they’ve been trusted to watch. Seventy’s chairman at the time, Herbert Bass of Fox Rothschild, didn’t see the problem, either. The watchdogs were wearing blinders.

Every City Hall scandal conjures up the timeworn Lincoln Steffens maxim that Philadelphia is “corrupt and contented.” The truth is that Steffens, writing in 1903, didn’t find Philadelphia politicians to be uniquely crooked. What shocked him was the accepting attitude of upstanding citizens who paid off the City Hall bosses or otherwise indulged them. Without the help of the contented, the corrupt might have been forced out of business long ago.

The Committee of Seventy was founded a year after Steffens’s article appeared. It was no match for the city’s then-mighty Republican machine, but at least its membership’s interests were truly independent of the power structure it aimed to overthrow. That’s hardly the case today. Seventy’s board members aren’t bad people, but the board itself is very badly compromised. Too many of its members pose as righteous reformers while their law firms grow plump on the public teat. It’s not reasonable to expect them to be agents of real change. When was the last time you boasted to your boss or business partner that your favorite off-hours hobby involved dreaming up laws that would probably blow a hole in company earnings?

If Stalberg is going to make any headway in changing the city’s political culture, it’s not enough to bash the politicians for being whores. He’s got to get the city’s legal community to swear off its whoring, starting with the firms represented on his board. Either they stop making campaign contributions and withdraw from their no-bid bond deals, or they should get off the Seventy board. Quit or get off the tit. Stalberg, it turns out, knows a thing or two about combating vice from the demand side of things. Last year, his Daily News went after prostitution in Kensington — not by picking on the working girls in fishnets, but by printing the names of johns in business suits. The johns proved much easier to scare off. Unlike the prostitutes, they had reputations to uphold.

In the meantime, Stalberg can keep his salary secret as long as he likes. No one really cares what he’s making. It’s much more important that he succeed at what he’s set out to do, and I don’t see Zack Stalberg giving up a 35-year career in newspapers just to become an enabler and a hack.