Mayor Nutter and Team Deserve Credit for Cleaning Up City Hall

Watchdog Amy Kurland wields the mop bucket

Reading the drumbeat of corruption news out of City Hall, it’s easy to assume that the Philadelphia government is as ethically challenged as ever. Federal prosecutors have charged a Philadelphia lawyer with fraud for spending cash from a city business development loan on office expenses like Eagles and 76ers tickets, a senior city technology official was fired after being wined and dined by companies hoping to do business with the city, a contractor allegedly siphoned off more than $1 million in public funds by using bogus billings, and a grand jury began poking into the operations of the Sheriff’s Office. And that’s just in 2011.

Before that there was the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the Board of Revision of Taxes, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions… You get the point.

Wasn’t Mayor Nutter supposed to drain the swamp? Wasn’t he supposed to make us believe that city government is at least clean, if not always super effective?

That’s actually exactly what’s going on here. Unlike the probes of the past, in a lot of these cases it is Nutter’s own investigators who are digging up the dirt. In case after case, they’re going after corrupt actors on their own or dishing to the feds.

This is pretty huge. It’s the difference between a city government that does everything it can (unofficially, of course) to thwart federal investigations into local corruption, and one that is trying to top the feds at their own game.

A lot of the credit belongs to Nutter. The guy has plenty of other problems. But it’s hard to think of another mayor in recent history who has done more to so quickly change City Hall’s permissive attitude toward low-level corruption. He set a tone early, and he has kept it up.

More important than tone, though, is personnel. Months before he was sworn in, Nutter held a press conference announcing that he was bringing three career prosecutors—Amy Kurland, Joan Markman and Kenya Mann, all specialists in public corruption—into his administration. He gave the foxes the keys to the henhouse.

Mann left after a relatively short stint on the Board of Ethics. But Kurland and Markman are still at work, the former as inspector general, the latter as chief integrity officer. Markman does some investigatory work, but her focus is on preventing problems before they occur. Kurland is the official watchdog, and her record is pretty amazing. In the last two years alone, her office’s investigations have led to the firings of 71 city workers for “improper behavior.” Of those, 32 were arrested or indicted.

Union bosses and some on City Council have complained about the resources Nutter has allocated Kurland and Markman’s offices, but given the results, it seems like money well spent.

The Nutter ethics record isn’t perfect. The administration could have moved faster and more aggressively on the Philadelphia Housing Authority, the BRT, the Clerk of Quarter Sessions and the Sheriff’s Office. It didn’t take a fortune teller to realize those quasi-independent city agencies had big problems, but Nutter held back from reforming those offices until big media investigations and outside events forced his hand. Still, when opportunities arose to clean house in those agencies the administration seized them. I don’t think past administrations would have been quite so eager.

The real question is whether Nutter and his former prosecutors can actually change the culture of City Hall, so that corruption continues to wane even after they’re long gone. There’s no real way to know, but I’m skeptical. Administrations come and go, but in Philadelphia, venality endures.