Power: Is This Any Way to Clean Up the City?

Ethics watchdog Shane Creamer has slapped the hands of Philly power brokers like Johnny Doc. But are his bark and bite as vicious as they should be?

SHANE CREAMER DRIVES a vintage Porsche, wears suits that could appear in GQ, and possesses what might be the finest head of hair on the Philadelphia municipal payroll. So when it comes time to profile the city’s good-government action hero, I figure I’ll begin where a feature on a rising movie star might: with the leading man strolling into a restaurant, acknowledging well-wishers, and enjoying a pricey meal — paid for, naturally, by the humble scribe who’s jotting down his every bon mot.

This presents a problem. It seems Creamer, the guy who polices city ethics rules, won’t do lunch. As the top staffer for the quasi-independent Board of Ethics, he’s technically allowed to let me pick up the tab. But there are appearances to worry about. Which means that our first meal together consists of a pair of hoagies I’ve schlepped to his desk, where the only onlookers are framed pictures of three wholesome-looking Creamer kids and a yellow lab named Beau. And Creamer pays me back for his sandwich, lest Beau think his master’s impartiality can be bought off with $6.97 worth of turkey, cheese and roll. “We have to be really careful about the things we say and the things we do,” Creamer says. He’s even more cautious when it comes to conversation. The tone may be affable, but there will be no dishing about good and evil today.

So much for a blast of righteous invective from the fearless vigilante who’s wrestled machine-politics heavies like Congressman Bob Brady, union leader John Dougherty and the late Councilwoman Carol Ann Campbell. And so much for asking who might be next. “That’s really not appropriate to talk about,” Creamer says, citing confidentiality rules. It’s a phrase I’ll hear a lot. Perhaps I’d care to ask instead about the new ethics-education classes where, as of 2007, Creamer’s staff had instructed 25,000-plus city employees on how to follow the letter of the law?

The letter of the law, in fact, is what has allowed Creamer to rack up an impressive string of legal triumphs, as the board has called out Philadelphia’s political untouchables on an array of persnickety rules that, not long ago, no one enforced. But the same letter also explains why those victories don’t necessarily portend the destruction of Philadelphia’s sleazy political status quo. Take the board’s long-running battle with Local 98, the electricians union, a fight hailed by an Inquirer editorial as proof that “it’s possible to stand up to bullies.” The struggle lasted 18 months, as Creamer tracked the provenance of a pair of anonymous political attack fliers from the 2007 mayoral primary. In the end, the union’s PAC threw up its hands, admitting to misstatements on campaign-finance paperwork and to funding the fliers. The energy spent prosecuting the misdeed: more than $200,000 in pro bono legal expenses. The fine: $10,000. For an outfit like Local 98, whose PAC dropped $2.6 million that year on Pennsylvanian politics alone, that’s not much of a disincentive. If you’d like to see city elections cleaned up, in fact, it’s kind of an outrage.