You know what would have been nice? If our elected officials, upon last week’s announcement that U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah had been indicted on 29 counts of public corruption, had read the indictment, which laid out in graphic detail the extent of the Congressman’s alleged criminal enterprise, and then…stood in front of microphones to say, in no uncertain terms, that the sale of public office for private or political gain no longer has any place in Philadelphia.
Instead we got more of the same. U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, Democratic City Committee chair, said he was “saddened” by the news and that Fattah stepping down from the House Appropriations Committee was a “major loss to the city.” Mayor-in-waiting Jim Kenney, asked whether Fattah should resign, said, “That’s a personal decision he can make on his own. He doesn’t need my advice.” Mayor Nutter called Fattah a “longtime champion for Philadelphia” who has “probably helped more children go to college than any other member of the U.S. Congress.” (Nutter’s kind words were interesting, given that it was Fattah who, during a 2007 mayoral debate, shamefully said that Nutter “has to remind himself he’s an African-American.”)
Given the rush of fond testimonials, you’d have been forgiven for thinking the guy had died, rather than been indicted. Yes, Fattah is presumed innocent in a court of law. But the ho-hum tone of these reactions—sadness for him, rather than outrage over what appears to be yet another example of a corrupt culture run amok—are way off. Kenney had a chance to show some moral leadership. When he was asked if the Congressman should resign, he wasn’t being asked to offer Fattah advice. He was being asked to pronounce upon the health of the body politic, to consider these allegations in terms of the common good. It was an invitation to be high-minded, and to put us and our fate above politics. He punted.
Was there anyone who would condemn, in no uncertain terms, what Fattah is said to have done? I sat on a panel discussion on Channel 6’s Sunday morning public affairs show, Inside Story, during which Sam Katz said what I’d been yearning to hear. “I think you’re seeing the circling of the wagons,” Katz began, referring to the mealy-mouthed comments by Nutter, Kenney and Brady. “This is what happens in Philadelphia when legislators get gifts, when congressmen use federal funds to abet and aid their own political interests. What happens? No one calls for anything other than ‘Wait and see.’ If a member of the Nutter administration had lunch with somebody inappropriately because the ethics rules of city government prohibit them from having lunch, they’d be fired. And everybody in Philadelphia today who has power and influence is saying, ‘Oh, he’s a good man, let’s wait and see.’ No one has stood up to condemn the actions for which he’s been accused. In fact, other than the Inquirer, no one has called for his resignation. Fattah should resign.”
How cool would it be if someone we elected took such a position? Or, if our elected officials reached out to those entities—mostly internationally based, as of now—that are coming up with innovative ways to change cultures of corruption in cities across the globe, and invited them to audit and intervene in Philly? That kind of no-nonsense straight talk, combined with a public program to do something about that which we wring our hands over, might go a long way toward curing the rampant spread of corruption in our midst.
Because there is a viral feel to the steady drumbeat of depressing headlines, isn’t there? Fumo. Traffic court. The “sting” of four Philly state House members. The guilty plea of Philly-based ex-Treasurer Rob McCord and the resignation in disgrace of Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery. This is just a partial list of recent misdeeds. Our culture of malfeasance, characterized by an utter shamelessness, is nearly as old as our history; Lincoln Steffens chronicled it in the early twentieth century, famously calling Philly “corrupt and contented.” And our elected leaders have been proving him right ever since, as when, in the mid-‘70s, State Senator Buddy Cianfrani, a colorful South Philly rogue, gloated, “if he can’t get me, what kind of investigator is he,” referring to the prosecutor who would ultimately send him away for racketeering and bribery. Then, as now, each revelation is followed by timid commentary from the political elite. Is it any wonder that voter cynicism ensues? The litany of bad acts, and our leaders’ shrugging acceptance of it, leads directly to they’re all bums, which leads to apathy and abysmally low turnout.
How cool would it be if our elected officials reached out to those entities—mostly internationally based, as of now—that are coming up with innovative ways to change cultures of corruption in cities across the globe, and invited them to audit and intervene in Philly?
Hold on a minute, you might be saying. Who says our elected leaders aren’t cleaning up our politics? Just last week, there they were, the Mayor, Council President and the head of the Ethics Board, holding a press conference to welcome a new, tough campaign finance law. Designed to combat the scourge of “dark money” that characterized the mayoral primary (and all elections since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision), the new law places more stringent disclosure requirements upon PACs, nonprofits, and corporations that spend to influence elections.
I’m all for transparency. What could be bad about requiring more of it? Nothing, except that we actually already know who provided the dark money this time around. The Bala Cynwyd hedge fund guys funded Tony Williams and union leader John Dougherty did the same for Jim Kenney. So, despite all the good government rhetoric at last week’s press conference, this legislation may really have been about something else. I can’t help but suspect it was yet another way to send a message by sticking it to Philly3.0, the PAC that was created by a group of Philadelphia businessmen in an effort to change the makeup of Council. Making doing business harder for 3.0 (which did not disclose its donors) might dissuade other businessmen from similarly trying to influence the composition of Council. If my suspicions are right, this would be the second time the empire might have struck back at those who had the temerity to try and get involved in the insular game of politics in Philly.
We don’t need new laws. We need outspoken leaders who shame the bad actors they otherwise do business with. And maybe, just maybe, we need to rethink how we go about enforcing good government. The Netherlands Court of Audit has had some success by consciously promoting integrity instead of always fighting corruption. By focusing on integrity in government, they take a pro-active, preventative approach. The Court of Audit—roughly akin to our Congressional Budget Office— analyzes governmental integrity through something called SAINT, a risk analysis workshop that is both a diagnostic tool and a way to intervene and change governmental cultures.
Could that be a challenge for those of us in the media, as well? After all, if we spent as much time rooting out examples of integrity in government as we do unearthing corruption, maybe average citizens wouldn’t be so deadened by the never-ending refrain of illegalities and improprieties that make up our news.
Maybe, if we were really serious about taking on our corrosive political culture, we’d reach out to Transparency International, a global coalition that fights corruption. They’ve published a “Local Integrity System Assessment Toolkit” that explains in great detail how they work with local governments and civic partners to identify and reform weak spots in governmental integrity.
But don’t hold your breath. Would any of those who expressed sadness over Chaka Fattah’s likely forthcoming fate have the same sort of empathy for the citizens who have hired them, and then have the guts to bring Transparency International here to try and reverse this embarrassing culture?