In a split decision, the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission has cleared former Philadelphia Mayor John Street of conflict of interest charges related to legal work awarded to his son’s law firm.
The Wolf Block law firm billed the Philadelphia Housing Authority for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of work done by the former mayor’s son, Sharif Street. When the PHA board hired Wolf Block, John Street was its chairman, and he participated in several votes to authorize legal work for the authority.
The votes included a period when federal auditors criticized both the volume of PHA’s payments to outside law firms and its practices for awarding and monitoring the work.
The state ethics code prohibits public officials from using their authority to benefit a family member. Ethics commission executive director Robert Caruso said Street’s votes presented a problem.
“Mr. Street basically voted to award a contract to his son’s law firm,” Caruso told me.
The commission’s investigative staff saw Street’s votes for the legal work as violating the conflict of interest provision of the state ethics law, but a majority of the commission disagreed, because Street’s action wasn’t specifically targeted to benefit only Wolf Block.
“It was not a vote just for Wolf Block, but for seven or eight different law firms,” said Charles Gibbs of The Green Firm, Street’s attorney on the ethics case. Gibbs was referring to the 2011 vote considered in the ethics commission investigation. Earlier votes were beyond the statute of limitations for review.
Wolf Block disbanded in 2009.Did Street ignore a warning?
When I spoke to Caruso, he said that when a vote to award legal work came up in 2005, PHA’s general counsel advised Street to abstain from the vote because of his son’s affiliation with the firm.
“Despite that caution, Mr. Street voted to award the contract,” Caruso said. “And then in subsequent years, he also voted to award contracts to Wolf Block at a time when his son, Sharif Street, was employed by Wolf Block.”
I wondered why Street didn’t just avoid the issue and abstain, since his vote wasn’t needed to approve the legal contracts. Caruso didn’t know.
“His vote wasn’t the determining vote. They would have gone through had he abstained,” Caruso said. “But who knows what goes through the minds of public officials when they’re presented with these situations?”
Gibbs, Street’s lawyer, said it wasn’t clear that Street was ever advised to abstain. He told me the record in the case showed that then-PHA general counsel Leigh Ann Poltrock conveyed the concern about Street’s potential conflict of interest to PHA Executive Director Carl Greene, and it’s not clear whether he passed it on to Street or not.
A majority of the commission members said while they don’t condone Street’s conduct, they don’t find a violation of law. Two members, including chairman John Bolger dissented, saying Street did violate the conflict of interest provision of the ethics law. You can find both statements and much more here at the commission’s website.
The commission did find that Street had filed to file his required statements of financial interest for 2006 and 2010. Gibbs said Street filed his statement with the city records department and the state ethics commission in 2006, but it wasn’t clear whether he’s also filed it with PHA, as he should have.
Street did fail to file anything in 2010. By then, he’d been out of the mayor’s office for two years, but was still on the PHA board. The ethics commission required Street to complete the filings, but imposed no penalty on him.
Gibbs said the conclusion of ethics commission inquiry is a victory for Street.
“The reality is, the state ethics commission went out looking for Moby Dick, alleging that John Street had violated the conflict of interest law and had done something illegal,” Gibbs said. “The reality is they came back with a minnow.”