The Utterly Ridiculous History of Lawbreaking (and Allegedly Lawbreaking) Philly Politicians
Kenyatta Johnson is just the latest in a long line of local pols accused of misdeeds, mischief-making, and assorted misbehaviors. From rum runners to bribe-takers, here are 20 of our, um, favorites.
‘Twas more than a century ago that muckraking investigative journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote about Philadelphia in a series of articles detailing corruption in U.S. cities. “All our municipal governments are more or less bad,” opined Steffens. “Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”
That was 1903.
Since then, we’ve amassed an impressive array of politicians accused — and frequently convicted — of corruption and other types of activities unbecoming someone in whom the public has placed its trust. We decided to look back at some notable cases, presented here in no particular order.
1: Angel Ortiz
Many Philadelphians have unpaid parking tickets. But Angel Ortiz, who joined City Council in the mid-’80s, had 53. Yes, 53.
Of course, he shouldn’t have been driving at all. In 2001, a TV crew from Fox 29 ambushed five-termer Ortiz as he exited his car outside City Hall. The station exposed the fact that he had been driving without a license for more than 20 years. In 2002, he was convicted of that infraction. One year later, he lost his seat on City Council.
Amusing trivial detail: Ortiz is the father of actress Ana Ortiz, who played the lead character’s sister in the ABC hit Ugly Betty. We had some fun with the actress at her dad’s expense in this 2007 interview.
2: Rick Mariano
October 20, 2005, was quite the day in Philadelphia. That was when City Councilmember Rick Mariano took to the observation deck atop City Hall, leading to fears he was going to jump to his death. Helicopters from local news stations hovered in the air. All sorts of first responders were on the scene. Even the SWAT team showed up.
Mariano had been under quite a bit of pressure. He was facing charges that he’d accepted bribes in order to pay his credit card bills.
Fortunately, Mariano didn’t jump. Unfortunately (for him), he was convicted, and he went to prison for four years.
It’s also hard to forget his televised knee-bumping incident:
3: Blondell Reynolds Brown
She just left her City Council seat in January, after 20 years. She’s received numerous awards. And she’s been commended for much of her work on City Council and in the community. That said, Blondell Reynolds Brown also committed some no-no’s.
According to a settlement she reached with Philadelphia’s Ethics Board in 2013, all of the following is true:
• She used campaign funds to pay off a personal loan from — guess who? — the since-incarcerated (and recently released) son of — guess who? — the since-incarcerated (and still incarcerated) U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah.
• Brown, whose salary was close to $140,000, apparently needed the loan to keep her house from going into foreclosure.
• It was wrong for her to accept that loan to begin with.
• She tried to cover it all up by claiming that the loan repayment to Fattah the Younger was actually payment for graphic design work.
• She and her team made 165 “material omissions” and six “material misstatements” surrounding the mess.
She continued to serve on City Council until last month.
4: Chaka Fattah
Speaking of the Family Fattah, Fattah the Elder was a U.S. Congressman from January 3, 1995, until June 23, 2016, when he resigned. The latter date was, not coincidentally, two days after he was convicted on a bunch of corruption charges. He misspent government dough and pilfered charity cash to cover his personal and campaign expenses. This is generally frowned upon.
Fattah the Elder is scheduled to get out in 2025, though he’ll likely be released a bit sooner. Fattah the Younger — the one who gave Blondell Reynolds Brown that loan she shouldn’t have accepted — was recently released earlier than expected after serving 46 months in prison for bank and tax fraud.
They should write a book. (They probably will.)
5: Budd Dwyer
Ah, the tragic, tragic tale of Budd Dwyer. He actually wasn’t a Philly guy at all, but the story surrounding him was huge in these parts.
Dwyer became Pennsylvania’s state treasurer in 1981. In 1986, a jury convicted him of selling out his office to a California company that desperately wanted a multimillion-dollar contract in the state. Dwyer was found guilty of conspiracy, mail fraud, and other things you wouldn’t want the guy handling the entire state’s money to be doing.
The day before he was to be sentenced, Dwyer called a news conference in Harrisburg, and — well, he pulled out a gun, and his death by suicide was broadcast live on television. Controversy ensued over the way local TV stations handled the tragedy. The suicide footage was later used in the 2002 Michael Moore documentary Bowling for Columbine.
6-10: The ABSCAM Five
Starting in March of 1978, the FBI ran a sting operation in hopes of rounding up dirty politicians. Undercover FBI agents pretending to be filthy-rich sheikhs from the Middle East handed out bundles of cash as bribes to serve their (fictitious) interests in the United States. Many politicians were investigated as part of what came to be known as ABSCAM. Nineteen people were convicted. Those not-so-lucky folks included five pols from the Philly area:
• U.S. Representative Michael “Ozzie” Myers, who was caught on video taking an envelope filled with $50,000 from a “sheikh.” On the tape, he said, “Money talks in this business, and bullshit walks.”
• U.S. Representative Raymond Lederer, who said “I can give you me” in exchange for his $50,000 envelope. Notably, Lederer was reelected while under indictment, but the House voted to expel him.
• Philadelphia City Council President George Schwartz. He only got $30,000. He told the “sheikhs”: “We got five or six members [of City Council] … You tell me your birthday. I’ll give them to you for your birthday.”
• Philadelphia City Councilmember Harry Jannotti, who took $10,000. After his conviction, Jannotti appealed, claiming entrapment. The appeals court agreed, overturning his conviction. Alas, the government appealed the appeal, and the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the government, leaving Jannotti’s conviction intact.
• Philadelphia City Councilmember Louis Johanson, who was represented by John Duffy, an over-the-top Philly defense attorney at the time. Duffy told the press that his client was overcome by the “dazzle of the dollars.”
If this all seems weirdly familiar to you, it could be because you saw the 2013 movie American Hustle, which is based on ABSCAM. Pride of Jenkintown Bradley Cooper played a fake sheikh.
11: Seth Williams
Currently known as Inmate 75926-066 at a federal prison in West Virginia, Philadelphia’s former district attorney spent much of his career investigating corruption and other illegal activity. But in 2017, he was indicted on 23 counts involving, yep, corruption and other illegal activity.
The accusations included accepting bribes that totaled more than $175,000, which, as you’re probably gathering, is just sort of standard operating procedure here in Philadelphia. But what really made us cringe was the allegation that he took money that was supposed to be used to care for his sick mom and paid own personal expenses with it instead. Booooo!
Williams negotiated a deal and pleaded guilty to just one count. Before his sentencing, he asked the judge if he could visit his mother one last time.
“The English language doesn’t have the word to capture the outrageousness of that request,” the judge replied. “The defendant stole from his mother and now wants to visit her?”
Well, Williams will soon be a free man. He’s scheduled for release in September.
12: Vincent “Vince” Fumo
In my opinion, any politician who willingly wears a freaking bowler hat in public should go straight to jail.
In the case of longtime Pennsylvania State Senator Vince Fumo, though, it wasn’t the hat, but the rampant corruption that landed him in prison. Fumo spent about four years there (note: the sentencing guidelines called for at least 11) after a jury found him guilty of 137 counts of fraud, conspiracy and corruption. He’s been back on the streets since 2013.
13: Movita Johnson-Harrell
She just went from being the first female Muslim member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to the first female Muslim member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives sentenced to prison.
In January, she got three whole months after pleading guilty to theft and other charges. The case involved $500,000 that mysteriously vanished from a nonprofit she founded.
This may just be the quickest downfall ever, the Tyson-Frazier of political downfalls.
14: James “Jimmy” Tayoun
Jimmy Tayoun was a true Philly character. He was also corrupt, and in 1991, following two non-consecutive terms on City Council, he pleaded guilty to tax evasion, racketeering, mail fraud, obstruction of justice, and both giving and receiving bribes.
A judge sentenced Tayoun to a little more than three years in prison. And what did he do while he was behind bars? Why, he wrote an advice book for those headed to prison. Going to Prison? — yes, that’s actually the title — is available on Amazon.
15: Leland “Lee” Beloff
Eventually, any examination of historical corruption in Philadelphia has to have a head-on collision with the Philly mob. Beloff brings us just that.
Beloff was a City Councilmember who, along with then-Philly mob boss Nicky Scarfo, masterminded an extortion scheme against developer Willard Rouse, a.k.a. the guy who built One Liberty Place. Beloff was also accused of forcing a builder to give his mistress a free luxury apartment. A judge sentenced Beloff to 10 years in prison, and while he was there, he was also convicted of election fraud. A real winner, this guy.
You’d think Beloff would have learned some valuable lessons from his predecessors in government.
The seat he took on City Council came directly from Jimmy Tayoun. And his immediate predecessor in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where he served from 1977 until 1984, was Michael “Ozzie” Myers, of ABSCAM fame.
Maybe Jimmy sent Lee a free copy of the book.
16: John Street
Okay, so John Street has never been charged with corruption. He’s never been found guilty of corruption by a jury of his peers. But if any mayor in recent memory had a major stank of corruption emanating from his general vicinity, it would be Street.
Among those charged was Philly attorney Ron White, who was one of Street’s closest friends and a huge fund-raiser for his campaign. The Department of Justice accused White of bribing city treasurer Corey Kemp with all sorts of fancy gifts and Kemp with giving White and his cronies city business in return. White died before he could be tried. Kemp was convicted on 27 counts of fraud, conspiracy and related charges and went to prison.
Again, Street wasn’t charged, but here’s some pretty damning language from an indictment in the case:
[Mayor] Street instructed his staff that if White or companies he proposed appeared qualified for city work, “the staff members should award the city business White sought and provide White with inside information … regarding the operations of city agencies otherwise unavailable to the public.”
Though Street denied wrongdoing, Philly journalist Will Bunch would later declare that Street “presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in Philadelphia history.”
And let’s not forget that Street had a history of not paying his taxes — something he had to come clean about when he was on City Council. He then paid nearly $10,000 in back taxes.
In 1999, when he was running for mayor, a Street opponent ran the following ad:
As a onetime tax deadbeat who twice declared bankruptcy and failed to repay a student loan … He got caught not paying his federal taxes. The IRS filed four liens against him. He didn’t pay his student loan, so he was fired as a teacher and taken to court. He didn’t pay his local tax, then voted for a bill that forgave the debt.
But the tax evasion didn’t seem to hurt Street, who became mayor. Maybe voters were just like, “Oh, taxes? Yeah, we don’t pay our taxes either. No biggie.”
17: Milton Street
Speaking of Streets who have had problems paying their taxes, I give you Milton Street, the older brother of John Street.
Milton has been many things. He was a hot-dog vendor. He had a company that shuttled tourists around in those ridiculous amphibious buses. He also somehow managed to get himself elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in the 1970s, then moved over to the Pennsylvania State Senate in the 1980s. More recently, he’s been a perpetual joke candidate in races for mayor.
Milton has also been a tax dodger. He spent time in federal prison for it. And he didn’t say he forgot to pay his taxes. He didn’t say he was having financial difficulties. He simply and amusingly invoked the familiar tax-protester argument that the federal government doesn’t have the right to tax its citizens. Oh, if that were only true.
18: Bobby Henon
You know that the city’s Republican Party is seriously anemic when a one-term Democratic City Councilmember under federal indictment handily wins reelection. That’s what happened in November when Bobby Henon faced off against Republican challenger Pete Smith.
In September, Henon is scheduled to go to trial, along with electrical union boss Johnny Doc and others, on corruption charges. Henon is charged with 20 counts of bribery and fraud, and prosecutors say he put Johnny Doc’s interests above those of the taxpaying public in exchange for cash. Henon has said he’s done nothing wrong. We’ll see.
19: Willie Singletary
There are plenty of city judges who have screwed up over the years, but none quite as memorably as former Traffic Court judge Willie Singletary.
In 2012, Singletary resigned his judgeship after a female court employee accused him of showing her a photo of his judicial genitals. “Do you like that?” he was accused of asking her. (No word on whether she was, er, judgmental.)
But genital photos and federal prison couldn’t keep Willie Singletary down. In 2018, he decided to run for a seat in the U.S. Congress. That didn’t go so well. So in 2019, he tried to run for City Council but was booted off the ballot thanks to his federal conviction.
And what does Singletary do when he’s not doing all of that? He’s a pastor, of course.
20: John McClure
A Delco-born-and-bred Republican state senator and construction business owner, McClure was the very definition of a political boss, using his mighty power to get his way and benefit his own bank account.
According to the 2003 book Ruling Suburbia: John J. McClure and the Republican Machine in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, published by the University of Delaware, McClure was at the helm of one of the most corrupt political machines in the country’s history.
In Prohibition-era 1933, while he was serving in the state Senate, McClure was convicted on federal rum-running charges. Prosecutors said he was the guy who decided who could operate speakeasies and who couldn’t. This was based, of course, on who paid McClure’s weekly protection fees. He also controlled the nearby port, charging thousands of dollars to allow booze to enter.
A court overturned the conviction on appeal — not because McClure wasn’t dirty, but because of the repeal of the 18th Amendment, which ended Prohibition.
I can only imagine that McClure is rolling over in his Chester, Pennsylvania, grave now that Democrats just won control of the county he once held so tightly in his outstretched hand.