Corrupt and contented? How about opinionated and ill-informed

    As a 36-year resident of Philadelphia, I have no problem with people who want to take a shot at the city from time to time.

    Who doesn’t have something to complain about? Chris Brennan of the Daily News once wrote, “I love this city so much sometimes I want to strangle it with my bare hands.”

    But people who profess to speak with authority on the city should have some idea what they’re talking about.

    Which brings up a couple of public expressions in the past week on the subject of political corruption in Philadelphia.

    While sentencing Vince Fumo to prison last week, Judge Ronald Buckwalter ruminated on the corruption of Philly politicians, and added parenthetically, “I know Philadelphia from time to time gets an ethics commission lined up, and try to make things change and make things better.” But it’s clear he didn’t place much stock in such efforts (You can hear his remarks by playing the audio above)

    And on Sunday, an essay by Rutgers history professor Howard Gillette in NewsWorks and the Inquirer looked at the city’s history of sleaze, going back to Lincoln Steffens’ famous description of the city as “the most corrupt and most contented.”

    As for any efforts to clean things up, Gillette writes:

    “Despite a number of good government efforts, some of which continue today, including the Committee of 70 dating to 1904, the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, which started as the Bureau of Municipal Research, and the Fels Institute at the University of Pennsylvania, the suspicion lingers that the public remains all too acquiescent in a political system riddled with conflicts of interest and hidden from adequate public scrutiny.”

    It’s kind of astonishing that he doesn’t mention the fact that in the past five years a newly recast and aggressive city ethics board has successfully taken on two Philadelphia Congressmen (one of them chairman of the city Democratic party), a sitting judge, several City Council members, and the most politically-powerful union leader in the city, whose political committee was fined $10,000 for sponsoring anonymous attack fliers in the 2007 mayor’s race.

    And there’s no indication he (or Buckwalter) was aware of the city ethics legislation enacted since 2004, including one of the most far-reaching pay-to-play laws in the country.

    That measure, sponsored by then-City Councilman Michael Nutter requires that anyone seeking a no-bid city contract disclose:

    any consultants (lobbyists) hired for the previous year to work on the contract applied for, and amounts paid to them.
    any political contributions in Pennsylvania made by the applicant or his consultants in the previous two years.
    subcontractors to be used on the contract, along with percentages of the deal they would get.
    gifts to any city officials in the previous two years; and the identity of any city official who has requested a gift or contribution.
    the name of any city official who recommended a particular minority subcontractor within the previous two years.

    That’s not all. The bill also limits the political contributions of anyone seeking no-bid city work, and includes within the limits any money contributed by family members and any money the contract-seeker raises for a candidate.

    When the bill was up for a vote, I asked Craig Holman of the Washington-based Public Citizen, which monitors this stuff, to review the text of the legislation.

    “This a remarkable bill,” Holman told me. “This would set Philadelphia ahead of any other major city or state in pay-to-play regulation.”

    The ethics bills and the new ethics boards represent institutional reforms—rules and an enforcement agency that at least in theory are there for good. We’ll see.

    But there are also steps taken by Mayor Nutter which have an impact at least while he’s in office.

    He appointed former federal prosecutor Joan Markman the first-ever chief integrity officer for the city. She’s had an impact on city contracts and wrote the report on the award of a charter school contract for Martin Luther King High.

    And Nutter turbo-charged the city inspector general’s office by appointing former federal prosecutor Amy Kurland to the post. She’s built an impressive record of investigations.

    The ethics board alone represents the most significant development I’ve seen in more than 25 years of covering city politics and government.

    I got professor Gillette on the phone, a smart man who cheerfully acknowledged there’s a lot he doesn’t know about the city’s recent experience. He said he wanted to make more general points in his piece, in particular that local investigative reporting is key to holding our leaders accountable.

    He’s right on that score, of course.

    And I’ll add that one reason many aren’t aware of Philadelphia’s advances in the fight for integrity is that we in the media report corruption stories with such relish.

    Reform efforts tend to unfold slowly, and get less coverage.

    Which is why I’m sounding off about this now.

    When we do something right, we should stand up and be proud about it.

    Seems to me the corrupt in Philly just aren’t as contended as they used to be.

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