by Jay A. McCalla
From the birth of the very first government, men (and later, women) have crafted ways to create special favor for themselves so they might benefit from its highly concentrated power and wealth.
No matter how rich and influential one might be, government is the thing that must be bent, seduced or corralled.
Halliburton, despite the dizzying scope of its wealth and influence, craved and secured the favor of an American Vice-President and Defense Department. The infamous Koch Brothers scheme and conspire to get “some love” from the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of the Interior. As large-scale polluters, Koch wealth will rise and fall based on the presence or absence of meaningful regulation.
In our rightly beloved Philadelphia, the dollar amounts are smaller, but the intense dynamics are no different. Government must be swayed or spayed.
Surprisingly little is required to corrupt outcomes. Of the ethically frisky Traffic Court judges who brought a fatal disgrace to their institution, only Judge Thomasine Tynes was accused of taking an actual bribe – jewelry. The others scarred justice merely because the party that elected them expected it.
Even the loathsome quartet of state reps who were videotaped accepting envelopes stuffed with cash (so cliche’), would still have their jobs had they reported the money as income and paid proper taxes.
I’m reminded of all this because Derek Green, a winner in the Democratic Primary for Councilperson at Large, has recently been hired by the powerhouse Philly law firm of Obermayer, Rebman Maxwell & Hipple LLP. Green is a former long-time aide to retiring Councilperson Marian Tasco and may well be a good lawyer. However, the marriage with Obermayer didn’t occur until he became virtually guaranteed to serve on City Council in January of 2016. Do you see where I’m going with this?
As a member of Council, Green will have elite access to influence city spending, investments, vendor selection, professional services contracts, land disposition and acquisition, zoning and city planning, business financing and much, much more. He will be able to influence the shape of legislation before and during official consideration. For a powerful law firm with powerful clients, this is a lovely situation. The name of a sitting member of Council on their letterhead will lure clients who expect to cut to the head of the line.
I know absolutely nothing that would suggest Green is less than honest. But, I have a pretty good grasp of what creates a serious, ongoing conflict of interests and this is that. Routinely, Green will have to decide whose interest to serve – his constituents or his clients. We can be sure of what Obermayer will want.
There’s a nifty loophole in our venerated City Charter that defines the job of “councilman” as part-time, with no restrictions on outside employment. Many shouted “hallelujah” at discovering this ethical aberration and eagerly grabbed outside cash. The late Councilperson Augusta Clarke practiced law, without establishing a separate office and staff to accommodate the endeavor. Councilman Brian J. O’Neill is “special counsel” to the law firm of Fox, Rothschild, O’Brian & Frankel. Former Councilperson Bill Green IV, reported for work at Dilworth, Paxson LLP, throughout his time on council. Noble though they all may be, the conflict is clear, chronic and unhygienic.
Another Philly pol to exploit the charter aperture is Democratic Mayoral nominee James F. Kenney. In 2002, Kenney took an outside job with architectural firm The Vitetta Group at an annual salary of $82,000, which likely increased over the last 13 years. At the time, he freely acknowledged his role would be to procure government contracts, while pledging to not seek business from the City of Philadelphia. Of course, The Vitetta Group already had a lucrative government contract restoring City Hall, raising an intriguing “chicken vs. egg” conundrum.
The clutch for cash – and the ethical sand traps that come with it – is all the more troubling given Council already handsomely rewards itself for its own labor. The annual salary is $117,000, with summers off. They also treat themselves to full time use of a city-owned sedan, with gasoline, maintenance and insurance picked up by taxpayers. The value of that dandy convenience is easily worth another $5,000 to $8,000.
(Just so you’re braced, every four years, Council has a window wherein members can boost their pay even higher. That window closes in December.)
A simple fix that might increase the chances of councilmanic fidelity to voters would be a change to our charter, banning outside employment. Charter changes are fairly routine matters and generally succeed at the polls. The devilish wrinkle, of course, is that no charter questions can go to the voter without Council approval.
And so, much of what we can do is be continually informed and properly wary of those sweaty palms and broad grins crafted to say “trust me, I’ll be true”.
Jay A. McCalla is a former Deputy Managing Director under mayors Rendell and Street.He provides weekly political analysis for WURD 900 AM and blogs for Philly Magazine’s “Citified.” Twice a month, he will share his views on our city’s government and politics. Follow him on Twitter @jayamccalla1.