When punishment fits the offense – city Ethics Board gets it right

    When you write about politics, you sometimes find beauty in the simplest of things.

    Yesterday, we saw another example of why the work of Philadelphia Board of Ethics is one of the most inspired developments I’ve seen in covering 30 years of government and politics in this town.

    The board wrapped up a case that began in May with evidence of a garden variety abuse of public office.

    Two City Council employees were caught using city time and city photocopiers in their city office to produce a political flier aimed at voters in a contested City Council primary.

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    Just a few years back, there were two ways of handling this kind of misconduct:

    1) Ignoring it.

    2) Convening a federal grand jury and bringing serious criminal charges.

    That’s because there was no ethics board, really, and the Philadelphia District Attorney had no interest in this kind of stuff. Consider the likely effects of the two courses of action described above:

    1) By ignoring the misconduct, we send the message throughout city government and the political community that this stuff will not be punished, so everyone is free to do as they wish. Soon, petty abuse of public office starts to seem normal. Over time, politicians conclude they have to cut ethical corners, or lose to rivals who do.

    2) An FBI investigation takes forever, costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and brings the full weight of the federal government down on the miscreant targeted, charging as many serious crimes as possible to justify the expense and effort of the investigation. Since the feds lack the resources to do this on every tip, law enforcement’s response tends to default to option 1 – ignore the crap.

    Getting a real Ethics Board changed all this. At last, there was a body that could do what makes sense: make smaller, simpler and more frequent corrections to misconduct, so that everybody gets the message that the crap has to stop, and they understand the consequences.

    The case settled yesterday involved Kacy Nickens and Michael Moore, employees of outgoing Councilwoman Donna Miller. They were likely to lose their jobs when she left office in January anyway, but they lose them a few days earlier and are barred from further city employment for a year.

    Nickens will pay a $300 fine. Moore, whose prohibited political activity went beyond the fliers, owes $3,800. Both will pay a price. It will hurt. But their lives aren’t ruined. They don’t have to suffer a two-year investigation and then live forever as felons.

    The punishment fit the offense, and was negotiated with both parties rather than battled out in court. In fact, Moore’s settlement provides that he won’t have to pay most of his fine until after he finds post-city employment.

    You can read the Ethics board’s release and the settlement agreements, and see the flier in question here.

    One other piece of the episode deserves comment. The flier the two were working on was to tell voters of the 59th ward (my home ward) in Germantown whom their ward leader was endorsing in the primary. The ward leader of the 59th is Miller, the Councilwoman the two employees were working for.

    A logical question is whether Michael Moore decided to produce this flier on his own, or had instructions from Miller. When I asked Ethics Board executive director Shane Creamer if his investigation showed Miller had a role, he responded this way: “I won’t answer that directly but I will note that elected officials are not subject to the political activity restrictions in the charter.”

    I called Miller’s office late yesterday and the person who answered said she’d get a message to the Councilwoman, but I never heard back. Which doesn’t surprise me – she hasn’t cared much about talking to me for a long time.

    There’s a pattern to what the Ethics Board is doing here. Earlier this year the board announced a settlement with former Deputy City Commissioner Rene Tartaglione, another public official involved in prohibited political activity.

    She lost a well-paid public job and had to pay a $2,700 fine.

    At some point, I think folks are going to get the message.

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