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In the wake of the Dougherty-Henon conviction, local civic leaders put together a petition to let our local leaders know that Philadelphia residents demand action when it comes to …

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The Fix: You Can’t Change a Culture of Corruption…

… when just about everyone in it is complicit. State Rep. Jared Solomon and Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez have spoken out. But, in the aftermath of the Dougherty conviction, where are the others?

The Fix: You Can’t Change a Culture of Corruption…

… when just about everyone in it is complicit. State Rep. Jared Solomon and Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez have spoken out. But, in the aftermath of the Dougherty conviction, where are the others?

In a society where corruption is common, few dare to speak out against it on their own. Not only would denunciations lead to social disapproval and perhaps even physical danger, they don’t do much good unless others join in. That is, you need a critical mass of disapproval to be effective.
—Ray Fisman and Miriam A. Golden, Corruption: What Everyone Needs to Know

Talk about missing the story. Earlier this week, State Representative Jared Solomon and City Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez joined good government groups like Committee of Seventy (now helmed by Al Schmidt), Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters for a press conference outside City Hall. They announced their “People Over Politics” petition and a plank of three modest (yet, sadly, still unlikely) reforms in the aftermath of the recent corruption conviction of labor leader John Dougherty and Councilmember Bobby Henon.

The news coverage of the press conference was… dutiful, and missed the real story. “City Council Will Debate Limits on Outside Employment in Wake of Bobby Henon’s Bribery Conviction,” read the Inquirer headline. “Government Watchdog Groups, Elected Officials Call for Reform in Philly,” blared NBC10. “The People Over Politics Petition starts new conversation around Philly corruption reform,” wrote Al Día.

Uh, no, not really. Call me jaundiced, but we’ve seen this movie before. A pol is carted off in handcuffs or convicted. Good government types suggest systemic fixes—tweaks, really. Other pols, terrified of violating an Omertà-type code, remain silent. And soon we’re off to the next headline du jour.

The mayor, ever loyal to his disgraced political benefactor, shamefully suggesting that he has “an opinion” that differs from the jury’s—is a slap in the face to every citizen of the city.

We see the pattern in our history—our halcyon days of reform, under Richardson Dilworth and Joe Clark in the 1950s, lasted all of 11 years; in 2007, Michael Nutter cleaned up pay-to-play in City Hall, but in the years since, we’ve again reverted back to our mean. It’s always Groundhog Day when it comes to municipal corruption in Philadelphia.

The story this week was not that Solomon and Quiñones Sánchez were speaking up. It’s that no other elected official joined them. It’s that a mayor, ever loyal to his disgraced political benefactor, shamefully suggested he has “an opinion” that differs from the jury’s—a slap in the face to every citizen of the city. The lead story, in other words, should have been about who was not in that City Hall courtyard.

We’ve just gone through a trial—complete with wiretap recordings that could have been taken from the Bada Bing— that showed the extent to which your government had been hijacked to serve Dougherty’s ends. You can’t call a councilperson and instruct them to shut down an installation of an MRI machine that used non-union labor, can you? Can you call your councilperson and tell them to secure your friends jobs when he negotiates the city’s cable franchise deal?

RELATED: Larry Platt on what good can come from the Dougherty-Henon trial

Lest you think all these backroom machinations don’t affect you, keep in mind the 2014 study from Indiana University and the University of Hong Kong, which found that the average Pennsylvanian pays a $1,300 yearly “corruption tax.” That was seven years ago, long before Seth Williams, Kathleen Kane, Movita Johnson-Harrell, Dougherty, Henon and countless others stole from you. Who knows how much you’re really into them for? P.T. Barnum is said to have observed that there was one of you born every minute, Philly taxpayer.

You’d think that, after hearing the wiretaps in the latest trial—a juror proclaimed the testimony “appalling”—our elected officials would, if not show up to support the reforms of Solomon and Quiñones Sánchez, at the very least tweet something like this: “The trial of John Dougherty and Bobby Henon demonstrated the dangers of allowing private interests to unduly influence public matters. I’m pro-union, but it’s clear that we now have an opportunity to clean up our politics so they finally really serve working men and women.”

Would that be so hard? Yet we’ve heard hardly anything of the sort from the usual suspects. After the verdict, Council President Darrell Clarke released a statement expressing sadness, and conceding that “we have heard both testimony and wiretap recordings that cast serious doubt on the integrity of our legislative body.” There were a lot of seemingly timid, finger-to-the-wind souls, including mayoral wannabes Cherelle Parker, Allan Domb, Rebecca Ryhnhart, Jeff Brown, and Derek Green.

Helen Gym, who was heard on the wiretaps asking Henon for ethics advice when it came to disclosing the gift of Eagles tickets bestowed upon her by Dougherty’s union, released a statement upon the verdict that was notable for lacking her usual fire and brimstone passion: “There is no question that I think that there are gray areas in the law right now. There is no ban on secondary employment. I don’t think we have strong conflict of interest rules and those are things that have to be put to discussion.”

RELATED: Is now really the time to go softer on public corruption?

You can’t change a culture of corruption when just about everyone in it is complicit.

And that’s what the well-intentioned and needed reforms proffered by Solomon, Quiñones Sánchez and the good government groups miss: We have to first and foremost dismantle a longstanding culture, the infamous corrupt and contented mindset muckraker Lincoln Steffens observed here way back in 1905.

Solomon et al propose limiting, rather than eliminating, outside income on Council; publicly financing elections, and eliminating dark money in politics. Some version of these might address part of what allowed Dougherty and Henon to hijack your government. But it won’t get to the heart of a diseased system that has long held this city back.

So, herewith, some thoughts about what truly ails us, and how we can take our government back from an insider class that has played you for a stooge for decades. (Remember Vince Fumo’s mantra? “Other People’s Money”!)

City Council is the problem

Just why in the hell was Bobby Henon involved in negotiating the city’s cable franchise deal, anyway? When the aforementioned Dilworth and Clark redid the Home Rule Charter decades ago, making Philly the national poster child for political reform, they created a decidedly “strong mayor” system. Little by little, Council has chipped away at mayoral power to the point that, in district councilmembers, we now have an army of de facto neighborhood mayors running around, accountable to no one, cutting deals to benefit them and their friends without regard to what it means for the rest of us.

There is no greater example of this than councilmanic prerogative, the longstanding gentleman’s agreement among councilmembers that all will defer to each district colleague when it comes to land use and development. It’s a system that creates little fiefdoms, and heightens the opportunity for graft and bribery, as the saga of countless Philly bad actors can attest.

RELATED: Every councilperson convicted of a crime in Philly since 1981 committed offenses related to councilmanic prerogative. There is another way: planning

Other cities have run of the mill misconduct; we have a tragic history of sheer chutzpah and chicanery, as the Citizen’s printable tongue-in-cheek Philly Corruption All-Star cards make clear. (Trade ‘em with your friends!) And keep in mind we ain’t done yet; next up on the ignominious list just might be indicted Councilman Kenyatta Johnson who, along with his wife, Dawn Chavous, faces federal corruption charges stemming from the alleged misuse of his Council powers.

No doubt, the reform package revealed this week by Quiñones Sánchez and Solomon didn’t mention prerogative because, at first glance, you can’t really reverse something that isn’t even written down. How do you outlaw that which isn’t even enshrined in law?

Well, you could do as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot did on her first day in office, when she lessened the power of the Windy City’s “Aldermanic Prerogative” by signing an executive order that strengthened the city’s planning and zoning departments. Here, in stark contrast, one of Jim Kenney’s early acts was to name a Dougherty apparatchik—his chiropractor—to head the zoning board. Dude went on to be indicted and convicted of corruption, and was sentenced to prison last year. Can’t make this stuff up, right?

Or you could, as Philly 3.0’s Jon Geeting has argued here remove from the Charter the prerequisite that a Council ordinance precede the selling of public land, which might help knee-cap Councilmanic Prerogative. But either of these options would require Council to regulate itself at a time when Quiñones Sánchez can’t even get a single one of her see-no-evil colleagues to join her at her reform press conference this week.

My most progressive friends in the People’s Republic of Philadelphia get irate when I say this, but if we really want to reform our local corrupt and sclerotic political system, our best bet would be to cultivate a local Republican party that engages in the marketplace of ideas and goes all out to win local elections.

Quiñones Sánchez and Solomon qualify for what passes for profiles in courage in this town, but are they solving for the right big picture problem? Yes, dark money and outside income are worthy of our attention. But the biggest challenge just might be Council’s ever-growing power and Darrell Clarke’s obsession to grow the body’s sphere of influence.

That’s why I was intrigued by a notion floated by former mayoral candidate and Philly documentarian Sam Katz in our recent Zoom primer on municipal corruption. Why not increase the size of Council to, say, 25 or 30 members, remove its perks, (like the secret $3 million line item Clarke controls in its $17 million budget) and make it a truly part-time body that meets at night in different neighborhoods throughout the city?

That’s the way many local legislative bodies conduct their business—no six figure salaries, no cars, modest expense accounts. Just a group of committed citizens doing their civic duty. Council becoming a legislative body made up of citizens and not career pols would literally embody the name of the petition launched this week: People over Politics.

Okay, I get it: Council Reform Thyself ain’t likely to be a refrain widely embraced in City Hall. But it’s arguably more practical than my next suggestion.

Want reform? How about building a real Republican party?

That loud cracking sound you hear? Progressive heads exploding. But in their book, Corruption: What Everyone Needs to Know, political scientists Ray Fisman and Miriam A. Golden suggest that “single-party dominant regimes” foster corrupt cultures.

“The threat of removal from office can play a role in keeping politicians honest,” they write. “If single-party dominance removes this fear, corruption may flourish. History provides many examples of this, especially among post-colonial African nations, where one-party rule was commonplace in the second half of the twentieth century. Perhaps not surprisingly, so was corruption.”

Here, what has passed for the Republican party long ago made a deal with the Democratic machine, effectively settling for the crumbs of patronage in exchange for not really competing for public office. That’s how we’ve gotten more and more joke candidacies of late, like Chuck Peruto’s recent kamikaze mission for DA and the goofy Republican mayoral nominee in 2019, Billy Ciancaglini.

My most progressive friends in the People’s Republic of Philadelphia get irate when I say this, but if we really want to reform our local corrupt and sclerotic political system, our best bet would be to cultivate a local Republican party that engages in the marketplace of ideas and goes all out to win local elections.

I had hopes that, when she was tapped to lead city Republicans, state rep Martina White would take what had become the political equivalent of the Washington Generals and turn the party serious. But, like so many others who know better, she’s been unable or unwilling to extricate herself from the derailment known as the Trump train.

RELATED: Will Philly Dems double-down on democratic socialism—or finally embrace being a governing party?

Solomon and Quiñones Sánchez are loyal Democrats, so it’s too much to expect them to pick up the banner of a credible opposition party. But what about civic and business leaders? Instead of doubling-down on the cynicism and deal-making of the keepers of the status quo, why not jumpstart real change? The fastest growing political designation in Philadelphia is neither democrat or republican. It’s independent.

One friend suggests we should start a new party and call it The Data Party. Wherever the facts lead, that’s what we should do. Beyond doubt, heightening competition tends to clean up the political game. Fisman and Golden point to New Delhi, India, where the Aam Aadmi Party—the Common Man Party—won 67 of 70 city council seats in 2015 a mere two years after its founding on a radical reform platform. The revolution was driven by middle class disgust over widespread corruption.

The key words there are “middle class.” When citizens with disposable income finally tire of having to pay bribes to see a doctor or have cops respond to their calls, political change is sure to follow. In that way, Philly’s poverty and corruption levels are inextricably linked. I remember Nutter telling me how hard it was to recruit businesses to Philly—no matter the tax break, few wanted to do business in an unpredictable and corrupt political environment.

Progressives like Gym—who took Dougherty money—should be corruption fighters. First, it’s a signpost of good governance. Second, it turns out that, the more corrupt a society, the more unequal it is. So a virtuous cycle emerges: Grow jobs, build a middle class, and save local democracy.

Leadership matters

Here’s where we come back to the profiles in courage who have held their tongues since Dougherty’s conviction. Or who, like Kenney, had the sheer gall to effectively side with the criminal over the jury of his peers.

It wasn’t always thus. Time and again, corrupt cultures have been changed by leaders who boldly challenge longstanding norms. Back in the 1950s, Dilworth and Clark were the frontmen for a movement led by middle-class professionals, especially housewives in their thirties. When Clark became controller, his investigations led to multiple suicides of corrupt officials who knew they were about to be outed. Now that’s reform. “Where would cities be if not for men like me to fight for them?” the aristocratic pugilist Dilworth famously said.

Fast forward to the mid-aughts, when Michael Nutter ushered in campaign contribution limits, an Ethics Board, and cleaned up City Hall by bringing into his administration prosecutors who had won public corruption cases. It can be done, but not without taking political risk. That’s what Lori Lightfoot is demonstrating in Chicago, arguably the most corrupt city in America with 1,750 convictions over the last 40 years.

RELATED: Can Chicago’s stunning 2019 mayoral election results serve as an object lesson for Philly?

Not only did she issue that executive order on day one of her administration that stripped aldermen of their authority over permits and licensing, while ordering city departments to stop deferring to aldermen’s wishes. She also pushed through an ethics package which gave Chicago’s Inspector General greater powers to investigate aldermen, and banned alderman from having any outside employment that posed a conflict of interest. Not coincidentally, she faces a tough reelection campaign.

Perhaps my favorite anti-corruption crusader was Antennas Mockus, the philosophy professor turned Mayor of Bogota, Columbia in the ‘90s, when the city was still reeling from the havoc wreaked on it by drug lord Pablo Escobar and a local government of enablers who had been on his considerable payroll.

Mockus innovatively took on his city’s entrenched way of doing things. He famously hired mimes to mock jaywalking pedestrians on city streets. (Imagine crossing a street against a red light and having a mime march up behind you, holding a “thumbs down” sign above your head the whole time!) Gimmicky? No doubt. But it was the shock treatment a lawless city needed to undergo. When Mockus fired 2,000 traffic cops, many of whom were prone to accepting bribes, it was clear a new sheriff was in town. Soon, citizens rushed to Mockus’ gun buyback fairs, and crime began to drop precipitously.

What do you think the chances are that Mockus would have waited around nervously to see what others might say about Dougherty’s conviction before releasing a statement himself? He would have known what is clear on its face: That there’s little risk to being labeled anti-union if the alternative is being anti-democracy.

It turns out that, the more corrupt a society, the more unequal it is. So a virtuous cycle emerges: grow jobs, build a middle class, and save local democracy.

In her book Corruption in America, Zephyr Teachout, the progressive law professor who challenged Andrew Cuomo in New York’s gubernatorial primary a few years ago, reminds us that, for the Founding Fathers, corruption was a “national fixation.” Teachout writes: “They saw their task this way: How could they create a system that would be most likely to be filled with men of civic virtue but avoid creating temptations that might corrode that virtue?”

The answer, according to Teachout, was to assiduously keep public and private interests separate. She tells a fascinating story about a diamond-studded snuffbox that Louis XVI gave Benjamin Franklin, then our ambassador to France. To the French, the gift was a simple custom. To Franklin’s Revolutionary countrymen, it was a threat to their virtue, a quid even if there was to be no quo.

The founding fathers sure had their blindspots, but the best of them, like James Madison, knew how morally fragile this whole democracy thing could get. Voters, Madison maintained, needed to have “virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom.” And if legislators lacked virtue? That would be a “wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of government can render us secure.”

Fast forward to today. “This was a real lesson in Philadelphia civics and how Philadelphia government works — and it was appalling,” that Dougherty/Henon juror told the Inquirer, asking not to be identified for fear of retaliation. “There’s a lot of enabling of John Dougherty and Bobby Henon in City Hall.”

It was as if, through the years, Madison and that juror were talking to one another, looking at the same set of facts and drawing precisely the same set of conclusions. Now if only our elected officials—save two—could do the same.

The Fix is made possible through a grant from the Thomas Skelton Harrison Foundation. The Harrison Foundation does not exercise editorial control or approval over the content of any material published by The Philadelphia Citizen.


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