Guest Commentary: A Morally Deadly Epidemic

A former city official laments the seemingly unending corruption among our elected officials—and urges Philadelphia voters to demand real change

Guest Commentary: A Morally Deadly Epidemic

A former city official laments the seemingly unending corruption among our elected officials—and urges Philadelphia voters to demand real change

When I arrived in Philadelphia in 1972 as a reporter for The Inquirer to cover District Attorney Arlen Specter and reported on several major corruption trials, I began to understand what Lincoln Steffens meant when he called the city “corrupt and contented.” Since then, Philadelphia has become more content, more corrupt. Here is a list of elected officials (in alphabetical order) convicted since then:

  • Leslie Acosta, State Rep., 2018
  • Isadore Izzy Bellis, City Councilman, 1977
  • Louise Bishop, State Rep., Louise Bishop, 2015
  • Vanessa Brown, State Rep., 2018
  • Michele Brownlee, State Rep., 2015
  • Leland Beloff, City Councilman, 1987
  • Herbert Cain Jr., Common Pleas Judge, 1988
  • Henry Cianfranni, State Sen., 1977
  • Matthew Cianciulli Jr., State Rep., 1979
  • Mario Driggs, Municipal Court Judge, 1988
  • Joshua Eilberg, U.S. Rep., 1979
  • Chaka Fattah, U.S. Rep., 2016
  • Vincent Fumo, State Sen., 2009
  • Herbert Fineman, Speaker of the House of Rep., 1977
  • Kenneth Harris, Common Pleas Judge, 1988
  • H. Warren Hogeland, Traffic Court Judge, 2013
  • Harold James, State Rep., 2015
  • Harry Janotti, City Councilman, 1980
  • Louis Johanson, City Councilman, 1980
  • Ray Lederer, U.S. Rep., 1981
  • Michael Lowry, Traffic Court Judge, 2015
  • Michael Ossie Myers, U.S. Rep., 1980
  • Richard Mariano, City Councilman, 2006
  • Robert Mulgrew, Traffic Court Judge, 2013
  • Kenneth Miller, Traffic Court Judge, 2016
  • Joseph O’Neil, Municipal Court Judge, 2016
  • Maurice Osser, City Commissioner, 1972
  • Angel Ortiz, City Councilman, 2001
  • John Perzel, State Speaker of the House of Representatives, 2011
  • Vito Pisciotta, Common Please Judge, 1975
  • Fortunato Perri Sr., Traffic Court Judge, 2013
  • Thomas Shiomos, Common Pleas Judge, 1988
  • Willie Singletary, Traffic Court Judge, 2017
  • George S. Schwartz, President of City Council, 1981
  • Thomasine Tynes, Traffic Court Judge, 2014
  • Ron Walters, Traffic Court Judge, 2015
  • LeAnna Washington, State Sen., 2014
  • Seth Williams, District Attorney, 2017

Mind you this list only includes elected officials convicted, not simply indicted such as Councilman Robert Henon, or those acquitted, or the eight judges who were tossed off the bench for taking money—“Christmas gifts”—from the roofers union but not tried in court. Nor does it include convicted state elected officials like two attorney generals, three treasurers, one auditor general and two Supreme Court Justices. Nor does it include appointed officials or lawyers, bankers and hangers on who have been convicted in municipal corruption cases.

Even with this more narrowly defined chart, it is still an ugly depiction of a morally deadly epidemic that threatens the city’s vitality.

The reason I singled out elected officials is because the responsibility for them rests with the people of Philadelphia who elected them to office or, given the paucity of our voting turnout, didn’t vote at all. Like sheep we follow the lead of the machine politicians who walk us through the valley of corruption.

Do Something

Such neglect has resulted in the shame of Philadelphia—14 judges, four Congress people, eight City Council people, 13 state legislators, one city commissioner and one district attorney, convicted of violating the public trust.

The only good thing that can be said for our Hall of Shame is its diversity—whites, blacks, Hispanics, men, women, Jews, Italians, Catholics, Protestants. About the only group underrepresented is Republicans only because this has been a one-party town for more than a half a century. There are very few Republican elected officials just as there were few Democrats when the Republicans ruled the roost more than a half a century before that.

But that doesn’t acquit the current local Republican Party. It rarely offers any meaningful opposition. This year is no exception. Its candidate for Mayor is a woman who, by her own words, is a recovering addict, has a mental illness, is on disability and feels qualified to be mayor because her cabinet will do the work. The party is so lame that if it was a horse it would be taken out to pasture and put out of its misery.

The only good thing that can be said for our Hall of Shame is its diversity—whites, blacks, Hispanics, men, women, Jews, Italians, Catholics, Protestants.

So, what can be done?

  • First, no political donor should contribute money to any candidate for City Council who doesn’t commit to reforming councilmanic prerogative, a practice which facilitates corruption.
  • A statute should be created in honor of Willard Rouse, the developer who, when he was shaken down by Councilman Leland Beloff, immediately called up the FBI and blew the whistle. I would suggest that Rouse’s statute should be placed in front of the Union League so when the city’s big shots enter, they can see what real civic responsibility looks like.
  • Let’s do away with partisan municipal elections like virtually every other large city in the nation has done—yes, even cities like Chicago and Boston. This means that Republicans, Independents and Democrats can face off in one election. Today the only election that matters in Philadelphia is the Democratic primary, basically disenfranchising independents and Republican and deterring good candidates from entering the ring. Our current system is a legalized system of voter suppression.

Custom Halo

With only three months remaining until the real election for mayor—the silence is deafening despite the latest stench of municipal corruption. You would think that things are hunky dory in Philadelphia, that there was no such thing as an opioid epidemic, a broken tax assessment system, a struggling school district, a high homicide rate and low clearance rate, a scandalously high poverty rate, and despite the health of Center City, which represents only 2.2 square miles of the city’s 140 square miles, more people moving out of the city than moving in, according to a recent Center City District report.

We have outsourced our democracy to a bunch of ward leaders and a handful of political chieftains who over the past several decades have bequeathed us a Hall of Shame of convicted officials. It’s time for the people to take back democracy in this city that helped nurture America democracy before we are asked to forfeit the Liberty Bell.

Phil Goldsmith, former managing director of the City and interim CEO for the school district, has held several senior level positions in the private, public and non-profit sectors in Philadelphia.

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