Ackerman, Nutter, and the deal that still smells

    If you’ve followed the ghastly buy-out and departure of former Philadelphia school superintendent Arlene Ackerman, you shouldn’t miss the piece by Benjamin Herold for Newsworks and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.

    Herold reveals that the school district-related non-profit that funnelled anonymous donations for Ackerman’s $905,000 buyout was used to slip Ackerman some cash on the way in, for transition work. And he notes that Ackerman served on the board of this non-profit, and that the IRS “has rules relating to activities that substantially benefit one of its board members.”

    And there’s the matter of the anonymous donors who contributed $405,000 to the deal, at least some of them known to and possibly solicited by Mayor Nutter.

    Brett Mandel has a piece on the Philly Mag blog on the subject called “Michael Nutter’s Corruption Problem.”

    That may be a little strong, but Mandel has a point.

    During the earliest stages of the 2007 mayor’s race, Nutter was alone among the candidates in pledging not to accept contributions any larger than $2,500 from individuals and $10,000 from political committees – the contributions in the city’s new and untested campaign finance law. This was at a time when it wasn’t clear exactly when the limits would apply, or whether they would withstand a court challenge.

    But by running as he did, Nutter came into office with a wide base of financial support, and nobody had written him a $50,000 check at a critical moment in the campaign.

    When you get big checks from people, it has to affect the way you think of them. And if Nutter got big checks from monied interests to help buy Ackerman out, that has to affect his opinions of them. Do they have interests with the city?  We don’t know, because their identities are secret.

    A person wise in the ways of govermment was once explaining some smelly arrangement he’d made on behalf of a past mayor, and he said, “Come on Dave, you know what happens. Even when you’re trying to do the right thing, it gets messy.”

    And this was a mess. Nutter and a lot of people wanted Ackerman gone, and she had a pretty ironclad right to a lot more than $905,000 under her contract (in part because Nutter, Ed Rendell and others wanted to bring her here).

    Raising a bunch of money privately was Nutter’s way of limiting the public cost of Acerkman’s buyout to $500,000. In retrospect, it would probably have been smarter to have the district that gave Ackerman a superstar’s deal pay the cost of getting out it. And if somebody wanted to contribute to the cause to offset that cost, we’d all be better off if they’d done it in the open.

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