Are we moving backward on public integrity?

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    Pennsylvania State Treasurer Rob McCord resigned last year and pleaded guilty to corruption charges. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Pennsylvania State Treasurer Rob McCord resigned last year and pleaded guilty to corruption charges. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

    Could corruption around here actually be getting worse?

    This occurred to me when FBI agents raided the home of a powerful Philadelphia labor leader and a City Council member Friday, three days before the State Attorney General was going on trial for perjury, just six weeks after a 20-year Philadelphia Congressman was convicted on corruption charges, and a month after a South Philadelphia ward leader was charged with bribery.

    All of this as a former State Treasurer and a former gubernatorial chief of staff have pled guilty and are cooperating with prosecutors. The labor leader, John Dougherty, and Councilman Bobby Henon haven’t been charged with anything, but the rest of the litany by itself is pretty disturbing.

    I’ve been telling people for years now that Philadelphia has undergone an ethical renaissance in the last ten years. Am I wrong? Is there just something in the water around here?

    I called Franklin and Marshall analyst Terry Madonna and he said, yeah, kinda.

    “Pennsylvania has about a hundred years of corruption that’s deeply ingrained in the political culture that somehow never gets removed,” he said, and that’s after the ‘bonusgate’ scandal in Harrisburg that led to 23 criminal convictions, including two former State House Speakers.

    Like postage stamps – forever?

    Why doesn’t it seem to change?

    I tracked down John Contino, who spent 25 years as director of the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission. He said we need stronger laws.

    Pennsylvania is behind other states on many areas of ethics legislation, he said – campaign finance limits, restrictions on gifts, lobbying disclosure, and pay to play laws which could limit contributions by potential government contractors to politicians who control those contracts.

    I asked his reaction to the recent indictment parade.

    “My reaction is why – why are we not seeing some kind of movement to address the areas that seem to be resulting in most of the problems that have occurred?”

    Philadelphia exceptionalism

    While lawmakers in Harrisburg haven’t exactly embraced ethics reform, things are a little different in Philadelphia.After the pay-to-play scandals of the Street administration in the early 2000’s, City Council established a new Ethics Board with real staff and authority, imposed campaign contribution limits, and enacted a pay-to-play law that got national attention.

    Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer says the effort has made a difference.

    “Within the last ten years since the Ethics Board began operations, I cannot recall a single Philadelphia elected or appointed official who has been indicted,” Creamer said.

    He has a point. The recent scandals have involved state lawmakers, the state treasurer, and a Congressman. Many city officials have been cited by the Ethics Board for campaign finance violations and some conflicts of interest, but those were resolved with settlements and civil penalties rather than criminal convictions.

    And, Creamer says, that’s the point. Politicians have learned to behave differently, so they don’t get indicted.”I think the climate has changed. I think expectations have changed,” he said. “I think those in the administration and especially in City Council are aware that the rules matter.”

    Capitol malaise

    So, if Philadelphia’s elected leaders tightened the rules on ethics after a scandal, why didn’t lawmakers in Harrisburg do the same thing?

    My longstanding theory is that we just pay more attention to mayors and council members than state legislators.State capitols are distant places. The politicians who inhabit them are too isolated from their constituents, their families, and hometown journalists, so they’re more prone to mischief.

    David Thornburgh, president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy says it may be that that there just isn’t yet “sufficient voter demand” for integrity.

    “Unless and until voters, in particular – because politicians are very sensitive to voters – make it clear that enough is enough, and we’re not tolerating this, I don’t think we’re going to see a change in conduct across the board.” Thornburg said.

    Thornburgh said a lot of voters don’t realize how much even small things, like calling a lawmaker’s office, writing a letter or circulating a neighborhood petition can get a public official’s attention. We won’t get more honest government, he says, until we demand it.

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