Slimy year in city politics, but I still believe

    Is this city just hopeless?

    For a while now I’ve been telling everybody we’re seeing an ethical renaissance in Philadelphia — real campaign finance limits (the only ones in the state), a mayor who’s made public integrity a priority, a district attorney who actually cares about public corruption and an aggressive ethics board that’s been taking on city politicians for several years.

    And what does 2014 bring? A parade of indictment and scandal that’s tarred a host of public officials and sent some to prison.

    Check out the list I put together here, and you’ll see what I mean. I limited my count just to Philadelphia public servants formally charged or implicated in scandal, and it wasn’t hard to get a baker’s dozen.

    Was my optimism misplaced? Is Philadelphia just as sleazy as ever?

    I don’t think so. As nauseating as some of these cases are, when I take a closer look, I see progress, and others do too.

    Rays of sunshine

    “I think in terms of the city of Philadelphia, we’re in a really good place,” city Inspector General Amy Kurland told me.]

    Kurland knows a thing or two about the subject. Before Mayor Nutter put her in charge of policing city government, she’d spent years prosecuting public corruption cases for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

    “There have been a lot of political scandals, a lot of indictments over the course of the year,” Kurland told me. “But I think none of these things have been part of the executive branch of the city of Philadelphia.”

    She’s right. In the previous administration, the city treasurer went to prison along with the mayor’s former law partner and others.

    But the serious corruption cases we saw in 2014 didn’t involve Nutter appointees or even elected municipal officials, such as City Council members. They were mostly state lawmakers and judges, all outside of the primary jurisdiction of the inspector general and the city Board of Ethics.

    It’s also the case that much of the conduct people were punished for dates back several years. The cash-in-envelopes allegations against State Rep. Ron Waters date back to February 2011. Some of the misdeeds of judges go back farther.

    Changing a culture

    Look back at city Board of Ethics investigations, and you’ll see they searched a City Council member’s office in May 2011, leading to a case on improper political activity. In 2013, they charged another Council member with serious campaign finance violations.

    City judges and state representatives come from the same ward structure and political culture as Council members, and I believe that, as the Board of Ethics raps knuckles among city officials, it makes an impression on all local politicians.

    Over time it can alter their sense of propriety, or at least their calculation of what they can get away with.

    Sleaze can spread. Maybe disinfectant does too.

    David Thornburgh, the new president of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy said he thinks the work of the inspector general and the Board of Ethics has an impact.

    “I think there’s a greater awareness that somebody’s paying attention, and somebody’s paying attention who’s got some teeth and is willing to bite,” Thornburgh said. “So I think that does make a big difference.”

    I make no promises, but I’d like to think the sleaze parade will be shorter in years to come. On the other hand, 2015 brings us races for mayor, Council and city row offices, and new opportunities for mischief. Let’s hope the city’s watchdogs will be up to the challenge.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.