If Philadelphia City Council wants to try to prevent the type of corrupt activities that led to Councilmember Bobby Henon’s federal conviction for taking bribes, members have a range of new programs and laws they could put in place, from public financing of elections to a ban on council members from holding outside jobs.
“Going forward, a big question is, what are we going to do to make sure this sort of stuff can’t happen any more?” said Patrick Christmas, policy director of the Committee of Seventy, a voter-advocacy and anti-corruption organization. “What can be done to bolster our public integrity laws and public integrity oversight?”
Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez called for reforms immediately after the jury announced its verdict Monday. The wiretap recordings and testimony presented during the six-week trial “cast serious doubt on the integrity of our legislative body,” she said. “Now that the trial is over, City Council must act to address some of the troubling issues raised by evidence.”
Quiñones-Sánchez, who had previously called for Henon to quit after he was indicted in 2019, said the city should institute a total ban on outside employment of council members. She was referencing Henon’s $70,000 salary from IBEW Local 98, which the jury concluded was a bribe from the union’s former business manager John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty.
Council positions are officially full-time jobs, and members already receive “generous” salaries of about $130,000 a year despite Philadelphia’s overall poverty, she said.
“The potential for the appearance of conflict of interest is simply too strong and erodes the public trust. There can be no disputing that outside employment has the potential to compromise the integrity of our members,” she said.
Meanwhile, Councilmember Derek Green, who was involved in creating the current Board of Ethics and other public integrity efforts over the past several years, said he is considering renewing an effort to publicly finance political campaigns in the city, among other ideas.
“I’ve been looking at a lot of different perspectives on this, in reference to how we learn from this situation,” Green said, referring to the corruption trial. “But I’m also, through my role as a member of the board of directors of the National League of Cities, looking at what other cities have done from a legislative perspective regarding various issues to make our city government better.”
New York and other cities provide public financing for campaigns in an effort to level the playing field for less well-funded candidates and to reduce donors’ sway over the political process. While costly, such a system could have a significant impact in Philadelphia, where Local 98 provided much of Henon’s campaign funding when he was first elected and spends at least $2 million a year on contributions to local, state, and federal candidates.
In 2017, Green co-sponsored a council measure that would have set the stage for a Home Rule Charter change to publicly fund elections. It would have provided matching dollars to candidates who first raised specified minimum amounts from campaign contributions.
In one iteration of the bill, candidates would have received up to $200,00 for a council run, up to $600,000 for a bid for district attorney or controller, and up to $2 million for a mayoral campaign. The proposal, which would have required voter approval, did not make it out of the council’s Committee on Law and Government.
“It would eliminate the need for politicians to raise big money to a certain extent. It’s a good idea, and I think it is something that needs a second look in Philadelphia,” said J. Shane Creamer, Jr., executive director of the city’s Board of Ethics, which supported the 2017 proposal.
Green, an attorney, who, as a city staffer, was involved in creating the new Board of Ethics in 2006, said he will research potential reform measures in the coming weeks with an eye toward introducing a legislative package in early 2022.
Henon’s case is not the only one that has called attention to the need for reforms. Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson and his wife were indicted last year for allegedly accepting payment from a developer to maintain control of several real estate holdings in South Philadelphia.
Ban jobs, or raise pay?
If banning second jobs is too heavy a lift politically, council members could at least require more detailed disclosures of their outside incomes, Christmas said. As was repeatedly pointed out during the trial, Henon’s statements of financial disclosure for 2015 and 2016 said he was working for Local 98 as an “electrician” — which was inaccurate — and did not list his income.
Starting in January, a change in the city’s ethics laws will require council members and other top city officials to report the amounts of any outside earnings above $5,000 per job. Legislation sponsored by Green and passed earlier this year created the new requirement.
But Christmas said disclosures should also include details such as the nature of the outside work, the number of hours the council member spends on the job, and who they report to.
The council could also selectively forbid employment that is more likely to create conflicts of interest, he said.
“Bobby Henon was not teaching a course at a local college. He was working for a highly political outside entity that lobbies the city all the time, vigorously, over all sorts of issues,” he said. “There should be a rule against city officials having jobs with entities that lobby the city.”
Alternately, council could follow the example of agencies like the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, which allows members to have second jobs but limits their outside income to 15% of their board income, or about $22,000 a year, said Mustafa Rashed, president of the Harrisburg government relations firm Bellevue Strategies.
Rashed, who has worked on mayoral and state legislative campaigns in Philadelphia, was skeptical of the idea of completely banning second jobs for council members at their current salary level.
As high as their pay already is, council members do important work and put in very long hours, yet they earn less than people in comparably demanding private-sector jobs and full-time legislators in other big cities who are barred from outside employment, he said.
He said the city would be better off paying councilmembers more and banning second jobs, or paying them less for part-time council positions while allowing outside employment.
“Falling in the middle [of the pay range] is probably problematic, because in the middle is where all the gray areas are,” he said. “You’d probably want to be in one place or the other.”
In addition to publicly funding elections, Green said he is exploring other measures that could go into his legislative package, such as instituting term limits for council members and ending the city’s “Resign to Run” rule, which requires current officeholders to quit their positions if they seek higher positions such as mayor or governor.
City voters voted down an effort to eliminate the rule in 2007, but Rashed argued for trying again as a way to make bids for higher office feasible for more people, especially female officials who are sole breadwinners for their families and cannot afford to quit.
“Resign to Run unintentionally but surgically targets and limits women from being able to run for office in Philadelphia,” he said.
Boosting ethics enforcement
Among other potential reforms to stop corruption is the Committee of Seventy’s call for expansion of the scope of the Office of the Inspector General, which is dedicated to rooting out fraud, abuse, and misconduct in city government.
Inspectors General have saved the city tens of millions of dollars and bolstered trust in government, but the office only exists through mayoral orders and only oversees executive and administrative branch employees, The Committee of Seventy said. The organization recommended enshrining the office in the Home Rule Charter and adding City Council, the Sheriff’s Office, Register of Wills and city commissioners to its purview.
The council and the mayor could also beef up the Board of Ethics, which oversees financial disclosure requirements, conflicts of interest, lobbying, campaign contributions and other issues. It currently has only one enforcement attorney in Creamer, down from three a few years ago.
Creamer argued that an expansion of the board’s powers in 2006, when he came on as executive director, contributed to a decade without corruption indictments, from former councilmember Rick Mariano’s conviction that year until former district attorney Seth Williams was charged with taking bribes in 2017.
While the Board of Ethics did not conduct enforcement against Henon and Dougherty, perhaps out of deference to federal prosecutors who spent years investigating the two men, the council member and the union leader may have violated the city’s ethics rules in 2015 and 2016, the period covered by their federal trial.
Henon did not report sporting event tickets he received from Local 98, which prosecutors said were part of the bribe from Dougherty. He also did not ask ethics officials whether he should recuse himself from voting on the renewal of Comcast’s cable franchise in 2015, which affected Local 98 member electricians and thus the source of Henon’s salary from the union.
Dougherty, meanwhile, never registered as a lobbyist despite likely making hundreds of phone calls in 2015 and 2016 to Henon, Mayor Jim Kenney, and other council members and officials seeking to influence them on official matters.
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