by Jay A. McCalla
The public had never heard the name Herb Vederman until he was convicted for his role in funneling cash to former Congressman Chaka Fattah in exchange for a shot at an ambassadorship. Vederman, a lobbyist and prodigious donor, used his cash and relationships to extract goodies from government for his clients.
Few would know the names of Main Line rich guys Richard Ireland and Brian McElwee were it not for the suspicion of law enforcement that their many government contracts were the result of “pay to play.” It seems that these enterprising fellows, 15 years ago, donated $300,000 to then State Treasurer Barbara Hafer. The very next day they were inexplicably blessed with a vast increase in the value of their contracts with the Commonwealth.
State and federal officials believe they made a fortune while bribing government officials with donations in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties.
These three names provide a proper background as we introduce to you Melonease Shaw, a Philadelphia lobbyist, job trainer, “onboarder” and ubiquitous presence amongst the political players of the city. Like many others, Shaw prospers whoever is in power. These grasping gonifs (check your Yiddish dictionary) latch onto the public treasury the way barnacles grab hold to a ship’s hull.
Shaw comes to mind because she’s recently been charged with stealing $250,000 from her publicly funded program to help poor people get jobs. The Pennsylvania Attorney General asserted that Shaw, in addition to her salary, pilfered from her $32 million multiyear cash flow of taxpayer money to pay for dance classes, flowers and meals.
This isn’t Shaw’s first messy affair. In 2006, she borrowed $90,000 from a city agency designated to help struggling minority businesses. She didn’t pay it back and had to be sued, years later, by the City of Philadelphia. In the end, she repaid less than half the original loan.
In 2009, a state audit of her taxpayer funded Transitional Work Corp. noted a range of expenses that seemed personal in nature. Among other items, she charged Pennsylvania taxpayers for her airfare to the Democratic National Convention in 2008.
Under the reign of the late Arlene Ackerman, Shaw had routine influence regarding the decisions made by the school superintendent. Dining twice a month with Ackerman, Shaw billed the school district almost $300,000 for helping her acclimate to Philadelphia in a process she called “onboarding.” She connected Ackerman to local power players and vice versa.
At the time of her alleged crime, she had lobbying privileges before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (since suspended) and was recently a strong contender for a lucrative contract to lobby for the City of Philadelphia in Harrisburg.
As with Vederman, Ireland and McElwee, it was Shaw’s political donations ($40,000 over the time period) that maintained her fruitful proximity to public power and purse.
Politicians are in chronic need of money. Mayor Kenney just spent millions to get elected and faces the need for millions more in just three years. Council President Darrell Clarke donates to his colleagues, requiring him to raise tons of cash. The average councilperson needs about $250,000 to get reelected.
The many lobbyists in this town are eager to write checks, but won’t be made fools of. When they have an “ask,” they want it requited.
Attend any caucus meeting of City Council and you’ll see lobbyists stacked like firewood. Each has a checkbook and an “ask.”
Sit through any Council session and note the vast majority of legislation is of a private nature: ¬ land disbursements, zoning changes for developers and condemnation of private property for private builders.
But the news is not all bad. Public financing of campaigns would separate pinstriped pickpockets like Vederman, Ireland, McElwee and Shaw from the public pocketbook once and for all. Without being able to donate, they’d have to resort to the old-fashioned method: bribery.
My abiding belief is that more Philadelphians than ever understand the deficiencies of our system and would happily support a “reform candidate.” I don’t see one today. But, there’s always tomorrow.