An act of conscience by SRC's new chair

Posted: April 21, 2009

The School Reform Commission was poised to award a $90,000 lobbying contract to Duane Morris Government Affairs L.L.C., an arm of the law firm that employs new panel chair Robert Archie.

But last night, it appeared that Duane Morris was out.

Archie said he would ask his law partners to withdraw the firm's proposal, which was set for a vote by the commission at tomorrow's meeting.

He had nothing to do with the decision to give the state lobbying contract to Duane Morris, Archie said, adding that the choice was made before he was named to the panel.

In a statement, Archie said he wanted to pull the resolution because "I do not want there to be any distractions as the SRC and the school district move forward on the strategic plan, the district's budget, and other pressing matters related to the well-being of our children."

Archie's statement came after The Inquirer raised questions about the contract. At last week's public planning meeting - Archie's first on the commission - he announced that he would not participate in discussions about the contract and would abstain from voting on it.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman last night said she "understood the appearance" of impropriety, but stressed that the decision was made well before Archie's arrival in the district.

She said that a request for proposals for state lobbying services had gone out and that a district committee had reviewed the applicants and last month presented her and former chair Sandra Dungee Glenn with the top two firms.

They were Duane Morris and Wolf Block, which has since gone out of business, the superintendent said.

Dungee Glenn and Ackerman had initially thought that the proposal would come up at the March meeting, but it was given to the commission too late for inclusion in that agenda, Ackerman said.

"This would not have been an issue had the timeline been different," Ackerman said.

There is precedent for the commission doing business with its members' bosses - the district has financial dealings with Wachovia Bank, where commissioner Denise McGregor Armbrister is a vice president. The district also contracts for education services with Temple University, where commissioner Heidi Ramirez is director of the Urban Education Collaborative.

The two abstain from voting on measures related to their employers.

Sherry Swirsky, the district's general counsel, said that under the district's employee code of ethics, which also applies to the commission, the Duane Morris contract was legal.

"If at least three other commissioners authorize the contract, it is a permissible contract," Swirsky said.

Ackerman expressed frustration that in the middle of state budget season, the district, which relies heavily on state aid, would have to continue with no lobbyists representing it.

Wolf Block had the last contract for state lobbying, but that expired a few months ago, the superintendent said.

"We don't have anybody doing this work," Ackerman said. "We're going to have to go back to the drawing table."

The district will now have to choose a lobbyist from among the several other bidders, she said.

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Martha Woodall contributed to this article.

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