Watchdog group's filing in DROP case draws fire

Posted: May 05, 2011

Has a good-government watchdog danced too close to a political line?

The Board of Elections has accused the nonpartisan Committee of Seventy of engaging in political activity by weighing in on a court challenge to candidates' nominating petitions.

Election finance and document specialist Tim Dowling has asked Seventy to register as a campaign committee on the grounds that it got involved in an attempt to remove from the ballot candidates enrolled in DROP.

"They engaged in election procedures," said Dowling, citing Seventy's amicus brief in support of lawsuits attempting to remove Councilman Frank Rizzo, Councilwoman Marian Tasco and City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione from the ballot due to their enrollment in the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan.

Dowling argued that preparing the brief meant that Seventy had spent money on the case. He has delivered a letter to Seventy asking it to register as a campaign committee.

But Seventy President Zack Stalberg yesterday disagreed with Dowling's interpretation of the law. He said the organization, which is registered as a nonprofit with the IRS, was simply weighing in on DROP and opposing a loophole that has allowed elected officials to enroll in the retirement perk, run for re-election, "retire" for a day to collect pension cash and then return to office.

"We take positions on all kinds of issues," Stalberg said. "This particular [brief] was not filed to benefit any particular candidate; it was filed because we oppose the city solicitor's ruling that permits some elected officials to resign for 24 hours and return to serve."

Dowling said the Board of Elections lacks enforcement ability on Seventy's actions and would have to refer the issue to the district attorney. He has not made a referral to the district attorney or the state attorney general, he said, but has made the city Board of Ethics aware.

The Board of Ethics' executive director, Shane Creamer, declined to comment.

Seventy has long bumped heads with the city commissioners, who oversee election in Philadelphia.

"It's a good-government organization and I have the sense they would prefer that we didn't take actions in support of good government," Stalberg said.

Dowling said he simply stumbled on this issue while reviewing a document.

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