The Corruption of Corey Kemp
In an airless beige room, wearing a dark green jumpsuit, remembering his former life, Corey Kemp shrugs his shoulders. “I think I'm smarter, wiser,” he says. “I'm definitely more focused. Some things that used to be important — a game, sports — I don't care about anymore. I used to manage my life around sports. That seems meaningless now.”
It's an overcast morning in July, and Kemp is sitting in the TV room of a prison camp in Devens, Massachusetts, a minimum-security facility located about 40 miles outside Boston, a place he has called home for the last 366 days. He is a little thicker, a little softer than you'd remember him, from when he regularly showed up on the evening news, invariably marching in and out of the federal courthouse in Philly. But as he sits slumped on an undersized plastic chair, he still cuts a striking figure: beefy and bald, with those sleepy, hound-dog eyes, his face seeming permanently stuck on a look of incredulity.
“I'm also more religious now,” he offers. “Before, I went to church, but then I'd put the Bible in the back of the car and go about my business. Now, it's something I think about every day. It's something that gives me hope.”
Devotion to Jesus has become a standard trope of prison time, but Kemp should perhaps be forgiven for trying to get a deeper perspective on the recent arc of his life. It was not so long ago, after all, that he was a Horatio Alger tale come to life, a product of North Philly's Strawberry Mansion neighborhood who was on his way to a big, responsible career. In 2002, he was all of 32 when Mayor John Street named him treasurer of Philadelphia, the youngest person ever appointed to the post. He was charged with managing more than a billion dollars of the city's cash and overseeing more than $750 million in municipal debt. He earned $93,600 a year.
And then he became something else, going from functionary to felon faster than you could say Webster Hubbell. Just 19 months after his appointment, amid a widening FBI probe into municipal corruption, Kemp left office. Indicted in June 2004, he was convicted a year later on 27 counts of conspiracy, wire fraud, mail fraud, tax fraud and extortion (and was acquitted on 19 other counts). Even in a town that has witnessed its share of high-profile flameouts, it was a mesmerizing plunge, punctuated with an appropriately astounding denouement: At a sentencing hearing on July 19, 2005, U.S. District Court Judge Michael M. Baylson told Kemp: “You not only cheated the city, you not only cheated your own church, you cheated the state. You cheated the federal government. It's a very discouraging picture, because you had so much promise. You had so much potential. You have only yourself to blame.”
And with that, he sent Corey Kemp to federal prison for 10 years.
Kemp's conviction seemed like a brief moment of clarity for Philadelphia, a place where politics tends to be defined by various degrees of murk. For once, someone had been punished. For once, somebody had been held accountable. At Kemp's sentencing, assistant U.S. attorney Robert Zausmer said of him: “He is a criminal. That is who he is.” It seemed, at the time, the only explanation anyone needed.
But that's the thing about moments of clarity: When you get far enough away, the details start to blur — but the meaning comes into focus. Fifteen months on, Kemp, just as Zausmer said, is indeed a convicted criminal, and many other things besides: a braggart, a philanderer, a liar, a spectacularly less-than-ideal church deacon. And for all those things, he surely will have some answering to do when he goes from this world to the next. But 22 people have now been convicted in the government's still-ongoing Philadelphia corruption investigation, and Kemp still holds a singular place among this notorious lot. He not only received the longest sentence. He became the icon of the city's peculiar illness, a totem of all the shitty little ways power gets exercised, of how business gets done here.
It is a curious distinction for a man who — as everyone who actually worked for the city agreed at his trial — never had all that much power. And in the wake of the conviction of City Councilman Rick Mariano and guilty plea of former mayoral confidant and law partner Leonard Ross, it seems more than a bit naïve. It seems like its own kind of delinquency — a failure to at least consider the possibility that the city's once and current political culture wasn't merely exploited by Corey Kemp, but may actually have produced him. “I don't think my sentence has changed one thing in Philadelphia,” says Kemp. He shakes his head, and his eyes search the floor. “I am paying for a system that was around long before I was.”
PERHAPS THE WORST thing that ever happened to Corey Kemp was getting the biggest break of his career. It was April 2002, and John Street had just made one of the more bizarre speeches of his tenure as mayor. Before 700 people gathered for the NAACP's Northeast regional training conference at the Convention Center Marriott, Street rambled on for 25 minutes. He boasted about fixing schools and neighborhoods; he bragged about the opportunities he'd given to African-Americans — how he'd hired a black police commissioner, a black fire commissioner, a black finance director, a black treasurer. “The brothers and sisters are running the city,” he said. “Running it! Don't you let nobody fool you, we are in charge of the City of Brotherly Love.”
In a town as acutely sensitive to the crosscurrents of race and politics as this, it was perhaps not surprising that Street's declaration caused a goodly portion of the population to temporarily lose its mind. Lost in the chatter was the fact that what the Mayor said wasn't, well, technically correct — and not just because of the 508 highest-ranking city employees on the payroll at the time, there were three more white staffers than black. No, the problem was the treasurer. The Mayor's first pick for the job, Folasade Olanipekun, was in fact black. But she had recently taken a job in Birmingham, Alabama, and the acting treasurer, one of her former deputies, Joseph Faraldo, was and remains, rather inconveniently, white.
Janice Davis, then the city's finance director and the treasurer's boss, soon hit upon a solution. Corey Kemp, the other deputy treasurer, wanted the job, and — oh, Providence! — he was not white. Davis liked Corey. He was smart and personable, and he did a good enough job managing the debt side of the office. But she had her doubts about promoting him. Not long after Olanipekun left town, Kemp gave the treasurer's report at a City Council meeting. He was so nervous that he could barely stumble through it. Sounding immature and unprepared, he came off, as Davis would memorably describe it, like “a North Philly thug.” All in all, a dismal performance.
Needless to say, he got the job.
What could Davis do? The Mayor had spoken: The brothers and sisters are running the city. He did not say The brothers and sisters and a white guy named Joe. Davis knew better than to make the man a liar. If such diligence required putting someone in office based on the color of his skin rather than the content of his résumé, well, that was the price for working for one of the weirder elected officials this side of a former Soviet republic.
She dashed off a letter to the Mayor suggesting Kemp be appointed. And just like that, the city once again had an African-American treasurer.
Just like that, the city had Corey Kemp.
COREY KEMP GREW UP in all-too-familiar circumstances, in a situation sadly similar to almost every other kid around him. He never knew his biological father. As a child in Strawberry Mansion, he lived in a small house on a small street in a world of deprivation, a place where, even today, one in three families lives on less than $10,000 a year.
For Kemp, it was a world that was dominated and defined by women: his mother, his aunts, and most of all his great-aunt. Jean Hobson was fearsome and fearless, a single mother who raised dozens of foster kids and served as the gravitational center of Kemp's extended family — shaping, bending everything to her will. She made sure Corey did well in school. She made sure his mom had money to live on. “She was the kind of person who ran toward gunfire,” says Dwight Franks, a childhood friend of Kemp's. In the late 1970s, when the neighborhood seemed to be sliding down a greased chute to hell, Hobson was the one who walked neighborhood kids to school, who chased drug dealers from stoops and street corners, who formed North Philadelphia Mothers Concerned to combat gang violence. Once, trying to break up a fight, she got her arm broken by a thug wielding a lead pipe.
It wasn't simply benevolence, though. Hobson knew about power and ambition, about how to command respect and whom to grant it to, when to ask for help and how to get it. When Corey turned 16, he came to see this with his own eyes. He became her driver, a job that revealed the world beyond North Taylor Street. When local politicians sought neighborhood cred by enlisting Hobson and North Philadelphia Mothers Concerned in some fight, it was Corey who drove her to the meetings. That's how Kemp first met John Street. Long before either would regret having the other in his life, the future treasurer drove his aunt to meet the future mayor.
But there were other lessons, too, ones that weren't so tidy and noble, for she was no saint of the streets; that wasn't how you survived. In 1983, the Department of Human Services mistakenly sent Hobson $2,000 more than she was entitled to for foster children under her care. When she reported the overpayment, she was told the error would be corrected. When it happened again, she went to see the social worker in charge of monitoring the program for the city, Stephen Ridley. Instead of fixing it, Ridley asked for a kickback. Over the next 20 months, Hobson would pay Ridley $1,000 a month while keeping the rest of the overpayments. By the time the city finally figured out what was happening, in 1985, Hobson had collected more than $50,000. Ridley eventually went to jail, but Hobson — claiming she had spent all the money on the neighborhood — paid back a small portion of her gains, got probation, and quickly restored her reputation. After she died, in 1997, the city honored her with a mural, a giant painting of her face looking out over her old neighborhood. Both Street and then-police commissioner John Timoney attended its unveiling.
Kemp was, by then, one of the bright hopes amid the blight. At the High School for Engineering & Science, he got good grades and developed into a basketball star. After high school, he decided on Alvernia College, a Division III school in Reading where he could play ball and be close to home. There, he studied accounting and started on the basketball team all four years.
Upon graduation, Kemp had none of the usual post-collegiate angst. He already had a plan. While still in school, he had spent two years as an intern in the city of Reading's budget department, which eventually led to a full-time job. Among city employees, he was considered bright, effective and wildly ambitious, particularly adept at ingratiating himself with more powerful colleagues, and his rise up the ladder was so swift and easy that it seemed like a cosmic conspiracy. He started as a bookkeeper, but when the head of the accounting department left, Kemp became the assistant department head. Then, when the new councilwoman who supervised the department began to clash with the new head of accounting, she decided to give that job to Kemp. The former head was now his assistant. It was Joe Faraldo: The Prequel! A few years later, when Reading lost its finance director, who do you think was asked to step in? Kemp was 27.
As acting finance director, Kemp cozied up to the city manager and became a member of the “budget mafia,” a tight-knit group of officials who kept a stranglehold on the city's financial processes. He also got close to Frank McCracken, a high-profile, controversial city council member and local preacher. The two men got to know each other; they were, after all, two of the few black guys in city hall. That McCracken could be a blowhard and a demagogue and was delinquent on thousands of dollars of taxes on property he owned in the city didn't give Kemp pause. “He was a mentor and a father figure to me,” says Kemp.
Kemp left Reading in 1997. Today, he says he was burned out. But a bookkeeper in the budgeting department — a woman who'd once socialized with Kemp and his fiancée — had filed a federal lawsuit claiming he had sexually harassed her. According to the complaint, Kemp repeatedly asked the woman out to lunch, and often sneaked up behind her while she was on the telephone or making copies and tried to kiss her. He would ask if she was happy with her husband, and tell her that he was in love with her. Kemp adamantly denied the allegations, and his bosses were quick to back him up. (The suit was eventually settled.) Even so, plans to make Kemp the city's finance director were scuttled after Reading's city solicitor, Russell Scianna, told council it should hold off while the matter was being investigated.
Kemp made a soft landing, taking a job as finance director of West Goshen. It was a good gig: The money was better, the hours were good. But it wasn't exactly the fast lane. That's when Corey Kemp's freakish kismet came calling again. While he was attending a conference for government financial officers, he sat next to another young local finance director, Folasade Olanipekun, and began chatting her up: about jobs, her background, their career goals. It was 1999, shortly before John Street was elected mayor, and Olanipekun was working for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, but she knew she was being considered for the post of city treasurer. After the conference, Olanipekun and Kemp stayed in touch, mostly by e-mail, and she eventually asked Kemp about coming back to Philly to work for her if she got the treasurer's job. Kemp thought it was just talk. But a couple months after Street won, Olanipekun called.
A NOTE REGARDING the exciting world of municipal finance: City treasurer, in Philadelphia or anywhere else, isn't the most glamorous financial job, even within the gray-cloud gloom of city government. It is, nevertheless, rather important. In Philly, the treasurer manages the city's cash, cuts checks, and keeps tabs on municipal investments and debt. The post is often the province of Responsible People, people who are CPAs, who wear boxy suits and Florsheim oxfords, who talk about things like “commercial paper” and “secondary markets.” Math is involved.
Olanipekun was typical. A child of immigrants, she earned two advanced degrees — one from Temple and one from Penn — before starting her career in government finance, and was known for being competent, independent and discreet. Kemp was different. Even before Street appointed him treasurer, he cut a conspicuous figure in city government. There was the simple matter of his appearance: With his shaved head and linebacker's body — he had bulked up since his days at Alvernia — he looked as much like an accountant as Ed Rendell looks like a flamenco dancer. There was also his disposition. Even into his 30s, Kemp still carried himself with an athlete's breezy bonhomie, the self-assurance of someone who knew he could always fit in. He could be likable and charming, particularly if the object of his attention lacked a penis. (Though now a father and a husband, on this he was the model of impartiality: He flirted with just about any woman.) But most of all, he was confident — “About everything,” says one woman who knew him.
In July 2000, not long after he came to work for the city, Kemp sat in on a meeting between Olanipekun and Ron White. The two men had never met, but Kemp knew the thumbnail version of White's résumé: bond attorney, friend of the Mayor, big-time political fund-raiser. If you worked in municipal finance, in fact, you would have had a hard time not knowing who he was. Though he had no official position in municipal government, White had been a force in city bond business going back to the mid-1990s, when Street, as Council president, held sway over who got bond deals with the city.
A few days after the sit-down, Kemp got a handwritten note from White saying they should get together for a drink sometime. Even then, just months into his tenure with the city, Kemp knew better than to disregard the missive. He knew that once, not long after Street took office, White had phoned city finance director Janice Davis looking for information on a city insurance deal. When Davis didn't call White back, the Mayor corralled her outside a cabinet meeting. “Ron is a friend,” Davis recalled the Mayor telling her, and continued: “If there was no problem giving him information, I should give it to him. He was a little disturbed that I had kind of blown Ron off.”
Kemp wasn't the type to shy away, anyway. From high school to college to Reading, he had always found a home among the cool kids, and White was everything Kemp wanted to be. Like Kemp, he had climbed out of North Philly to make something of himself. Unlike Kemp, he had made a lot of money in the process, and though he had long since earned a reputation as someone who could be a world-class pain in the ass, White knew how to enjoy life. He was charming and funny, with a booming, infectious laugh. He was generous to a fault, sponsoring yearly picnics in his old neighborhood and founding a scholarship program for kids.
White and Kemp soon become close. For Kemp, the pull wasn't difficult to understand. Powerful, ambitious, White was a paternal figure at a time when Kemp was still trying to navigate a new professional and political climate. “I think Corey looked at it as, hey, this guy is going to get me to the top, and if the Mayor is dealing with him on every decision, and the city is dealing with him, why wouldn't I deal with him?” says childhood friend Dwight Franks.
White's feelings toward Kemp have always been more complicated. When Kemp's case was winding through the courts, it was accepted as a matter of course that White simply used Kemp to grease the wheels of city government. But people who knew White say he was legitimately fond of Kemp. Part of this may have simply come from a sense of validation, an older man basking in the glow of a younger man's admiration. But others speculate that it grew out of White's own family dynamic, of having a son — Ron “Ali” White is an aspiring hip-hop artist and t-shirt maker — whose ambitions were far different, and less conventional, than his own.
Yet the relationship, as thousands of hours of FBI tapes would reveal, still had elements of acute weirdness. After they got to know each other, Kemp and White would often have meals together after work, and they talked on the phone almost every day, usually early in the morning. They talked about family and women and work, developing a convivially obnoxious frat-boy protocol: “Line up,” White would announce as soon as Kemp picked up his phone, and then both men would answer in unison: “According to size.” There was also a Kato Kaelin-esque financial aspect to their outings: When they went out, White would always pick up the check.
Back then, in the early stages of their friendship, Kemp says, he never thought about the implications of the relationship — or how it would be perceived. To him, it was a simple equation. White had money; he had less. He paid the tab when he went out with his friends who weren't as flush. Besides, at the time he came to know White, he was deputy treasurer, a job that pretty much defines the term “city hall functionary.” He never thought about the potential for being compromised, because he didn't think he had anything White would want to compromise him for. “If Ron White wanted something, he could just go across the street [to City Hall],” says Kemp.
To understand how Kemp could rationalize all of this, it's important to understand something about the city's political culture. Defenders of the Street administration like to say that pay-to-play has been a part of Philly politics since Ben Franklin got off the boat from Boston. This is true. But they also say this administration is no more mired in it than any other. That is bullshit. Street has managed to make the correlation between political support and city work about as inconspicuous as Billy Penn's giant bronze ass on top of City Hall. In 2002, when the Inquirer looked at the top 50 donors to Street's political campaigns, for example, it found that 47 of them had won city contracts, subsidies or appointments since he'd taken office. Street had essentially promised as much three years earlier. “The people who support me in the general election have a greater chance of getting business from my administration than the people who support Sam Katz,” he told the paper. “I think that's the way it works, and anybody who doesn't acknowledge that's the way it works is either a liar or thinks you're really stupid.” In 2002, when Street's procurement commissioner, William Gamble, was asked during a City Council budget hearing whether politics played a role in awarding contracts, he said, “In all candor, this is the first city where I have worked where politics is a major role-player.” That same year, Davis, who had worked in Dallas, Houston and New Orleans prior to coming to Philadelphia, put it even more succinctly: “Everything in Philadelphia is political.”
That was certainly the way it worked with city bond deals — before, during and after Kemp was treasurer. In 2002, for example, when the city announced it would issue $295 million in bonds for the Mayor's anti-blight program, the lead bond counsel was Ballard Spahr, which collected a $250,000 fee; the firm and its lawyers had given more than $300,000 in political donations over the years. The co-counsel was Ron White. And the underwriter's counsel was Greenberg Traurig, a Florida law firm whose local point man was Leonard Ross, an old friend and former law partner of the Mayor who would later plead guilty to, in effect, holding the development of Penn's Landing hostage so he could solicit more campaign contributions from developers. That isn't even the most egregious example of municipal back-scratching. Among the most revealing conversations the FBI recorded regarding the city's political culture was one that didn't involve Ron White and Corey Kemp. It was between White and mayoral aide George Burrell, talking about White's desire to see financial services firm Janney Montgomery Scott included on a bond deal.
“Why are we doing Janney Montgomery Scott?” Burrell asks White.
“Because of Denis, Denis Carlson, who's been with us for the last 10 years,” says White.
“All I know, he's at Janney Montgomery Scott, and he can't give us any money and Janney doesn't give,” says Burrell. “They don't even arrange for us to get money.”
With such brazenness, is it any wonder that a bit of Wild West attitude seeped into the lesser levels of city government, blurring the lines even for those who should have known, and did know, better? In 2000, when Olanipekun — whom almost everybody considers very smart and very conscientious — started her job as treasurer, UBS Paine Webber co-sponsored her celebratory party at Zanzibar Blue. (A similar party thrown by White for Kemp would be part of the indictment against both men.) Later, she admitted that she, too, accepted meals and tickets to sporting events while in office. The same goes for Kemp's former boss Janice Davis. In 2002, Davis accepted tickets from a Wachovia Bank executive to the NBA all-star game in Philadelphia. She also accepted seats to watch a Sixers game in Commerce Bank's luxury box. (City employees were allowed to receive gifts up to $100, and to accept meals at public and private events.)
Kemp — relatively inexperienced, eager to please, imbued with some striking naïveté and a sense of entitlement — was particularly susceptible to the lure of such perks, and particularly incapable of understanding how they could be perceived. (This is a guy who once attended an NBA game with his mistress — and his preacher.) And by the time he became treasurer in 2002, he had come to think that taking advantage of such goodies was standard operating procedure. It wasn't just that nobody had ever said anything to him when he was a deputy treasurer and took, say, tickets to the 2002 NBA all-star game (the same game Davis attended). Nobody had ever said anything to him about what was acceptable and what wasn't when it came to socializing with people who did business with the city. “There wasn't a service, a course, any training, nobody ever sat you down and said, ‘You shouldn't do this, you shouldn't take that,'” Kemp says. “I didn't think it was that big a deal. I was going to games with other bankers and with other lawyers. A lot of people from the city got tickets [to sporting events] from Wachovia. It was just part of the job.”
It's those kinds of statements that make people believe that Kemp was nothing more than a dupe for Ron White (and that also make people want to sort of throttle Corey Kemp). Yet it should be noted that Kemp didn't just absorb the pay-to-play prerogative; he expanded upon it, treating it as a growth industry. As he grew more confident in his job, he became even less discreet about taking advantage of the connections it offered. There are myriad examples of this — the feds' indictment includes a long list. In December 2002, for example, eight months after he became treasurer, Kemp asked for and got a home mortgage from Commerce Bank, despite dismal credit. In the summer of 2003, Kemp had a now-infamous $10,000 deck put on his Berks County home — arranged and paid for by White. Most outrageous of all was the Super Bowl trip: On January 24, 2003, White, Kemp, and Detroit fast-food magnate La-Van Hawkins flew in a private plane from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, where they stayed in a Beverly Hills hotel before taking a limo down to the game in San Diego. It was later revealed that most of Kemp's bills were paid by CDR, a California-based financial consulting firm that received city work.
By then, White was involved in almost every bond transaction in the city, as either bond counsel, co-bond counsel or underwriter's counsel — business that, all told, would eventually mean more than $600,000 in fees for White.
And yet it was never enough. Even at the point where White had unprecedented access to Kemp, when he was included on virtually every piece of significant business the city was doing, he would often put the screws to Kemp: for his clients, for his political allies, for his mistress — and for himself. “You need to really let … Charlie know what's up,” White told Kemp in late January 2003, referring to a potential client. “The way you can do that is to say, well, you know, the way this process works is generally … the finance director … kind of talks to Ron, the Mayor has a lot of confidence in Ron in this area. You see what I'm saying?”
The transcripts of those conversations make for fascinating reading. As the months pass, as White relentlessly hounds Kemp for information, badgering him to do what he wants on deal after deal, it's actually possible to see one man slowly enveloping the other, so much so that it eventually becomes impossible to tell who is who without reading their names, who is conveying information and who is dictating policy. By the summer of 2003, when Kemp tells White he'll be receiving a fee for a deal White didn't think he'd be part of, the surrender seems complete: “You got your boy sitting in the treasurer's seat, man!” Kemp tells White, “That's what we do, man, take care of each other.”
But nobody was taking care of Kemp, not even Kemp. He was now so blind to how ethically compromised he'd become regarding White that he couldn't have heeded warning signs delivered with sirens and gunfire. He actually got such a warning in the summer of 2003. Fittingly, it came not from anyone in Philly, but from Olanipekun, working as the finance director down in Birmingham, Alabama. “People know that [White] flew you out for the Super Bowl,” Olanipekun told Kemp. “That's the type of shit you don't want getting out there, Corey.”
ON OCTOBER 16, 2003 — nine days after a listening device was discovered in the Mayor's office — Kemp, as usual, arrived early to work. Sometime after 9 a.m., his phone rang. A Philadelphia cop was on the line, telling him that his car, parked in the city garage, had been hit by another driver. When Kemp got to his car, though, there were no cops. Instead, two FBI agents were waiting for him.
Kemp agreed to accompany the agents back to the FBI's field office, where agent John Roberts sat him down and played him snippets of numerous conversations the bureau had recorded over the previous nine months. The government, Roberts told Kemp, believed it had enough evidence to indict him on corruption-related charges. Yet he could help himself by helping them. They wanted him to arrange a meeting between Ron White and Kemp's boss, city finance director Janice Davis, to discuss city bond deals. They wanted Kemp to wear a wire.
Kemp says he never seriously contemplated cooperating. Instead, he immediately told Davis about the meeting with the FBI — and its request to have him wear a wire against her. (Davis would later repay this bit of loyalty by testifying against Kemp.)
In November, Kemp quit, went back to Reading, and waited for the anvil to drop. It did, on June 29, 2004, when he was indicted on 46 counts including conspiracy, extortion and fraud, a lot of which came under an obscure provision of the federal code known as “honest services fraud.” Many of the charges had nothing to do with his work for the City of Philadelphia. Indeed, perhaps the most damning set of accusations stemmed from his work with his minister and old colleague from Reading, Frank McCracken; the government alleged the two had set up a bogus welfare-to-work training program and skimmed $50,000 off a loan secured to rebuild McCracken's church after it was hit by lightning.
After the indictment came down, things got worse in a hurry. That fall, Kemp — now broke — was forced to get new, court-appointed attorneys. Then, in November, the feds announced that Davis was cooperating and would testify. That same month, White — the main focus of the government's probe — died of pancreatic cancer. And in December, McCracken pleaded guilty. Despite all that, Kemp says he's still glad he chose to fight, rather than cooperate or strike a plea bargain. “There's always a fear when you're going up against the government,” he says. “But I also thought I had a good case. I never had any criminal intent.”
IT'S ANOTHER DAY in Devens, and Kemp is back in the suffocating beige box inside the prison camp's main building. He is wearing his hunter green jumpsuit, and is in an upbeat mood. This is not unusual. He talks a lot about how much he misses his three kids, and how tough it's been for his wife, who is now the family's lone source of income. But he becomes most animated when he talks about his case.
Kemp can be an effective advocate on his own behalf, passionately articulating his beefs with his sentence (too long) and the controversial dismissal of a juror during deliberations (never should have happened). But he can also be utterly clueless about certain important elements of the case — most of which have to do with, well, him. Contrition isn't his thing. He won't even concede that the voluminous tape recordings of his phone calls with White and others were fatal to his chances in front of a jury. “I don't think I ever said anything in a criminal context,” he says. “I felt like if this is the worst they've got, then I don't feel like it's that bad. People say a lot of things. There could have been a lot worse things.”
On this, he is right, of course. There are a lot worse things. It's important to remember that Kemp didn't face run-of-the-mill corruption charges. This wasn't cash in brown paper bags and midnight drops. The charges related to his work for the city were filed under that “honest services fraud” law, an incredibly ambiguous statute that allows prosecutors to go after public officials even in cases where there's no evidence of material loss to any victim. Councilman Rick Mariano, on the other hand, was an elected official charged with taking cash bribes from a local steel company in exchange for tax breaks and beating back the regulatory bureaucracy. Then there's Leonard Ross, who was convicted of purposefully undermining a massive public-works project — one that's been in development for 30 years — so John Street could raise another $50,000 from developers for his reelection campaign.
What, exactly, did we find out from Kemp's trial? That he was, for sure, a world-class leech, that he never properly reported his gifts, and that he and McCracken deserve whatever divine and earthly punishment they get for scamming their own church. For all these and many other reasons, Kemp should have been fired from his job, shamed, sued, drummed out of his industry forever, and probably put in jail. But 10 years? What, exactly did Corey Kemp do as treasurer that others who held far more power didn't? Take free tickets or trips? Have a party thrown in his honor? Allow Ron White to call the shots on city bond business?
“The city never suffered a penny's loss from my doing my job,” he says. “No matter who was on the deal, I did my job to the best of my ability. I am in here for 10 years for the ability to recommend. Does that seem fair?”
Ahhh, but these are impertinent questions, and who needs that? Not when they might force us to face the fact that perhaps all is still not right in Philadelphia's body politic — that despite a handful of ethics measures and all those convictions, not much has really changed. John Street is still mayor. Pay-to-play is still the law of the land. We still live in a one-party oligarchy ruled by and for a few hundred people.
As the man himself said, Kemp's conviction hasn't changed one thing about Philadelphia. At least, not yet.
It has, however, provided him plenty of time to contemplate such things. And maybe one day it will provide all of us with an answer, for Corey Kemp spends his days in prison finding ways to fill the time. He's got an administrative job. He's working on his appeals case. And he is writing a book. He says it will be about his life, his rise and fall, and about “how things really work in the city of Philadelphia.” He doesn't have a title yet.