Alleged Convention Center Corruption Is Typical Philly

A recent lawsuit highlights why center management might be more harmful than unions

Despite the spanking-new $786 million addition, some things at the Pennsylvania Convention Center never seem to change. If anything, they appear to be getting worse if half the allegations are true in a federal lawsuit filed against the center and CEO Ahmeenah Young.

The wrongful termination suit filed by former Chief Financial Officer Madeline Apollo portrays Young as operating the state’s largest public works project as if it were her own personal fief. The suit alleges Young steered a multimillion-dollar cleaning contract to a friend and used the center’s credit card to pay for political events. The suit also alleges that former board chairman Thomas A. “Buck” Riley signed off on hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees without Young’s knowledge.

The suit further alleges that racial preferences played a role in how some people were treated, and references previous lawsuits filed by employees. The suit even alleges that Young stole food from the center for private parties. Real classy.

Young and Riley did not return calls for comment, but denied the allegations in a previous news report.

Apollo claims she was fired after speaking up in an attempt to “protect the integrity” of the center’s finances. Specifically, she said she raised questions about a 2010 bid process for a lucrative contract to clean the center. Apollo alleges that Team Clean was awarded the contract even though it was one of the highest bidders. The company did have something else going for it: Team Clean was run by a friend of Young’s, the suit says.

In most other cities, such allegations would shock the conscience. Not here. Forget it, Jake. It’s Philadelphia. Just another day at the public trough. Never mind that the Convention Center is the cornerstone of the city’s tourist industry. Instead of maximizing the business opportunities and getting the most bang for the taxpayers’ many bucks that have been invested in the money-losing facility, the Convention Center has apparently become a patronage haven.

At the very least, given the serious allegations contained in the suit, state leaders should call for an independent investigation to get to the bottom of the charges and ensure that the taxpayers’ investment is being protected. After all, this is not the first red flag to pop up at the Convention Center.

Indeed, the center has been plagued by union squabbles that drive up costs and leave a bad taste for many convention-goers. A recent study commissioned by the center found the price of union labor at the center cost the city’s hotel industry 400,000 nights of business between 2007 and 2009.

But if the allegations in Apollo’s suit are true, the unions have nothing on the management. That’s no surprise. The center’s management is steeped in political cronyism. The board is rife with appointees beholden to city, state and suburban political factions that often compete for the center’s spoils.

Young is a longtime friend of State Rep. Dwight Evans, who himself has been on a sad roll of late with his efforts to bully the Philadelphia School District into giving an ally control of a high school, and steer $1 million in state taxpayer money to fund a sparsely attended jazz festival in his district. Evans was a key backer of Young’s back when she landed the top job at the Convention Center in 2008. She oversaw the completion of the nearly $800 million expansion of the center and is paid more than $250,000 but, according to the suit, does not have a college degree.

But she does have some private business experience: Young was a partner in a failed Mount Airy restaurant that incurred $400,000 in debts and $169,000 in back taxes before it was bailed out by a nonprofit founded by Evans that has received more than $20 million in state funding over the years, according to the Inquirer.

When contacted about the bailout, Young gave the Inky’s Chris Hepp one of the all-time best no-comment comments. Young said she was recovering from a broken foot and needed “to get back in the whirlpool.”

Young added: “Thank you for letting me know what your story is about, but my primary concern right now is my foot.”

Hobbled, but unbowed.

If the past is any prologue, taxpayers shouldn’t hold their collective breaths waiting for any major improvements at the Convention Center. At this point, the public here has come to expect the worst from its local leaders. And that’s often what they get.