If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?
That question, like “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”, has confounded and entertained generations of people.
Here’s a variation: if a city government offers ethics training to its elected officials and those officials don’t attend the training classes, is the training worth a damn?
That’s a reasonable question, and it’s a question that arose recently in Philadelphia when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that members of Philadelphia’s city council, who are required by law to receive ethics training annually – as are all elected officials, all cabinet members, all department heads, and all board and commission members – are playing hooky instead.
Last year the city’s ethics board held four such training sessions but only five members of the council, all newly elected, bothered to attend. The other 12 council members decided they didn’t need any help discerning right from wrong.
When contacted by a reporter, the member of council who sponsored the requirement admitted he’d only attended once himself, and that was two years after his requirement became law.
Of 12 council members who have been in office at least five years, none have attended more than twice. Two haven’t gone in five years. One claims to be unaware of the requirement.
While that’s pretty bad, the ethics board isn’t doing its part, either: it doesn’t take attendance, doesn’t remind those who haven’t attended that they need to do so, and didn’t even bother offering any training at all in 2015.
This isn’t a theoretical problem. We should expect public officials to know right from wrong, but there are arguably some situations in which logic doesn’t necessarily lead to the right action – hence the need for training, including opportunities for officials to ask questions about situations they’ve faced. But it’s especially a problem in Philadelphia because the ranks of city officials who’ve gone to prison for misdeeds in office is absolutely breathtaking.
And just to prove that he’s not engaging in some kind of blogospheric hyperbole, The Curmudgeon is going to introduce you to Philadelphia’s elected officials hall of shame, office by office.
Michael “Ozzie” Myers – convicted of accepting and offering bribes in the “Abscam” scandal (on which the 2013 movie American Hustle was loosely based) (1980)
- Raymond Lederer – convicted of corruption, bribery, and conspiracy, also in Abscam (1980)
- Chakah Fattah – convicted of bribery and racketeering (2016)
Pennsylvania State Senate
- Henry Cianfrani – pleaded guilty to racketeering for padding his Senate payroll, bribery, and obstruction of justice and pleaded no contest to tax evasion charges and accepting bribes (1977)
Vincent Fumo – convicted of 137 charges of defrauding the Senate and misappropriating millions of dollars of state money and money from two non-profit groups (2009)
Pennsylvania State House
- Herb Fineman – convicted of obstruction of justice in a scheme to extort money from parents whose children sought admission to state medical and veterinary schools (1977)
John Perzel – pleaded guilty to two counts of conflict of interest, two of theft, and four of conspiracy (2012)
- LeAnna Washington – pleaded guilty to felony conflict-of-interest charges (2014)
- Ronald Waters – pleaded guilty to nine counts of conflict-of-interest for accepting bribes (2015)
- Michelle Brownlee – pleaded guilty to violating the state’s conflict-of-interest laws by accepting bribes (2015)
- Louise Bishop – pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge for taking bribes (2015)
- Harold James – pleaded guilty to one count of conflict of interest for taking a bribe (2015)
- P. Miranda – pleaded guilty to false swearing and ethics violations for putting a ghost employee – his sister – on his office payroll (2015)
- Leslie Acosta – pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money-laundering (2016)
Common Pleas Court all judges)
- Kenneth Harris – convicted of accepting bribes (1987)
- Herbert Cain – convicted of two federal counts of extortion (1988)
- Willis Berry – convicted of criminal conflict of interest for using his judicial chamber and staff to run his real estate business (2015)
- Judge Mario Driggs – convicted of accepting bribes (1987)
Traffic Court (all judges)
- Warren Hoagland – pleaded guilty to fixing traffic tickets (2013)
- Michael Lowry – convicted of perjury in a ticket-fixing case (2014)
- Thomasine Tynes – convicted of perjury in a ticket-fixing case (2014)
- Robert Mulgrew – convicted of fraud and tax evasion (2014)
- Willie Singletary – convicted of perjury in a ticket-fixing case (2015)
- Fortunato Perri Sr. – convicted of dismissing traffic tickets in exchange for bribes (2015)
City Elections Office
Renee Tartaglione – deputy commissioner – resigned when the city ethics board found her in violation of the city’s charter for actively engaging in partisan politics from 2007-2009. She currently awaits trial on charges of bilking a non-profit clinic out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Her husband, a Democratic ward leader, was convicted of bribing three Atlantic City council members.
City Treasurer’s Office
- Corey Kemp – convicted of corruption (2005)
And there are others, too, like the city’s former sheriff – yes, the fifth-largest city in the U.S. still has, for reasons no one really understands, a sheriff – has been indicted for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes; the Philadelphia Housing Authority fired its executive director in 2010 after spending more than a million dollars to defend itself from charges stemming from the director’s sexual harassment of members of his staff and hundreds of thousands more in damages to those he harassed; a Philadelphia school superintendent stepped down after it was discovered that he had required school district employees to make repairs and renovations on his beach house at the Jersey shore; and many, many more.
But this particular piece is supposed to be about Philadelphia’s city council, right? So let’s not forget them.
- Isadore Bellis – convicted of misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance for accepting bribes (1966)
- George Schwartz – convicted of conspiracy and extortion for soliciting and accepting bribes in the Abscam scandal (1980)
- Harry Jannotti – convicted of accepting bribes in the Abscam scandal (1980)
- Louis Johanson – convicted of accepting bribes in the Abscam scandal (1980)
- Leland Beloff – convicted of attempting to extort $1 million from a developer (1987)
James Tayoun – pleaded guilty to ten counts of racketeering, mail fraud, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice (1991)
- Rick Mariano – convicted of conspiracy, bribery, money-laundering, fraud, and tax charges for accepting bribes from business owners in exchange for regulatory favors, tax breaks, low-priced city land, and a school district contract (2006)
In 1903, the crusading reporter Lincoln Steffens described Philadelphia as “corrupt and contented” in the pages of one of the most popular magazines in the country at that time. (The Curmudgeon’s first job as a writer was for a non-profit “good government” organization that was created in response to that charge.) But more than 100 years later, it looks as if little has changed.
So when The Curmudgeon says he believes Philadelphia city council members should attend their annual ethics training, that the city’s ethics board should act more forcefully to compel them to attend, and that there should be consequences for failing to attend, he thinks he’s on pretty solid ground.
And when that ethics board, in response to a newspaper article detailing its failures, insists it will do better in the future, he thinks he’s on equally solid ground when he says he’ll believe it when he sees it.
Philadelphia: well into a second century of corrupt and very contented.