Lingering question about the Philly schools mess

    Before we lay the sorry events of 2011 in the Philadelphia School District to rest, I have to call you attention to a fascinating detail uncovered by Holly Otterbein of Its Our Money, a project of WHYY and the Daily News.

    You may remember that one of many things people hated about the $905,000 buyout of former superintendent Arlene Ackerman was that Mayor Nutter had called some well-heeled parties to kick in for her farewell.

    The mayor’s motive was pure – he wanted to limit the public contribution to $500,000.

    But many, including me, noted that the public ought to know when somebody does the mayor six-figure favor.

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    Why? Because some of those folks might have special interests in the city that the government could assist or impede. The names of those who pledged to the Ackerman kitty were kept secret.

    You might wonder, with all the ethics laws the city’s enacted over the last ten years, whether there’s some provision that might govern this situation.

    And it turns out, Otterbein reminds us, there is. It’s in a law introduced and pushed by Michael Nutter himself, when he was in City Council.

    I was writing for the Daily News at the time and followed this legislation closely. I thought Nutter never got enough credit for what national experts told me was one of the most far-reaching bills in the country aimed at fighting pay-to-play culture.

    The bill limited political contributions for anyone who sought or received certain city contracts, and required all kinds of disclosures by those seeking public business.

    And there, tucked in the law, is this requirement for anybody who seeks a city contract:

    (i) An Applicant must disclose, by completing and signing disclosure forms attached to the application:

    …….(.4) The name and title of each City officer or employee who, within two years prior to the date the application must be filed, asked the Applicant, any officer, director or management employee of the Applicant, or any Person representing the Applicant, to give money, services, or any other thing of value (other than a Contribution as defined in •17-1201) to any Person, and any payment of money, provision of services, or any other thing of value (other than a Contribution as defined in •17-1201) given to any Person in response to any such request. The Applicant shall also disclose the date of any such request, the amount requested, and the date and amount of any payment made in response to such request.

    In other words, if a city officer (such as the mayor) asked anybody doing city businesses for anything of value (like a contribution to the Ackerman fund), the person asked must disclose it.

    It doesn’t matter that in the end no money changed hands because those who’d pledged backed out. Nutter’s asking alone triggers the disclosure requirement.

    I checked with Nutter’s press secretary, Mark McDonald, who said the mayor asked no more than three or four people to contribute to the Ackerman fund. He acknowledged that if any of them seek city contracts covered by the ordinance, they will have to disclose the request.

    So we’ll keep an eye out for those disclosures. And you keep an eye out for Its Our Money.

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