Philadelphia’s DA targets public corruption

    For years, I’ve wanted somebody around here besides the FBI to take political corruption seriously. Now we have corruption fighters bumpin’ into each other.

    District Attorney Seth Williams has assembled some veteran prosecutors for a public corruption unit, ready to go after as-yet unidentified targets. The fact that this is news says something about the disinterest Williams’ long-tenured predecessor, Lynne Abraham, had in the subject of political corruption. 

    For years, Abraham took the position that her office had a conflict in investigating most Philadelphia politicians, since she relied on their support when she ran for re-election. She was interested in stemming violence and mayhem, she’d say. Let the the feds and the state attorney general worry about scoundrels in public office.

    The problem with this approach is that the state attorney general lacked the resources or interest to go after local small fry, and FBI investigations are ill suited to deal with anything but big players doing really nasty stuff. A federal grand jury probe is the nuclear weapon of corruption fighting. It takes forever and imposes life-ruining penalties on those targeted.

    I always said what we needed was a local body that would make smaller, more regular corrections to politicians who stray.

    Somebody, for example, ought to see it as their job to enforce the state election code. I once argued with folks in the district attorney’s office that it wouldn’t be that hard to assign a paralegal or even an intern to go over candidates’ campaign finance statements to make them conform with the law. Reports routinely leave out critical information with impunity.

    Times have changed

    But now, praise the Lord, we have a real city Board of Ethics. For years, it’s effectively gone after sitting judges, members of Congress and City Council, ward leaders, powerful unions, you name it — usually reaching settlements of their infractions that result in fines and embarrassment, but not incarceration.

    In addition City Inspector General Amy Kurland has kicked plenty of behinds in city government — often simple thievery rather than political corruption — but good for the soul of the body politic. And since he took office, Mayor Michael Nutter has given Joan Markman, a former federal prosecutor, the title of Chief Integrity Officer and free rein in his administration to meddle in situations and relationships that may not even be illegal, just smelly.

    The state attorney general scored big convictions (including one of Philadelphia’s most powerful politicians, John Perzel) in its “bonusgate” and “computergate” probes. And the FBI keeps doing its thing after having sent state Sen. Vince Fumo to prison. There are active cases involving traffic court and the staff of a state lawmaker.

    So where does Seth Williams’ new public corruption unit fit in?

    There’s room at this party for them, I think. State election code violations, for example, are not in the jurisdiction of the city Ethics Board, though some violations of the code also run afoul of city ethics codes.

    The interesting question is what will happen when city Democratic ward leaders and elected officials get subpoenaed or interviewed by Williams’ investigators, and they decide to call him directly and remind him of the support he got from them in the last election.

    Williams was city inspector general for a period a few years back, and he was perceived by many as a political animal in the role, using it to get headlines and build name recognition as much as root out wrongdoing. He spoke publicly about an ongoing investigation of City Council candidate Curtis Jones, for example.

    Williams says his new public corruption unit will go where the facts lead it, and he’s staffed it with people who have good reputations they’ll want to protect.

    Williams didn’t have to form this unit, and the fact that he did is both to his credit and encouraging.

    Once his investigators get moving, though, he may have to drop some pols from the contact list on his cell phone.


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