Strong arm of Phila. politics

School report highlights how deals are still done in the dark.

Posted: September 25, 2011

In 1999, when John F. Street first ran for Philadelphia mayor, he said his campaign contributors had "a greater chance of getting business from my administration."

"I think that's the way it works," Street said.

In 2004, insurance magnate William Graham IV explained why he cut politically connected insiders into his government contracts, even if they did little or no work.

"It's just so accepted," Graham said. "If the only way to get to Flourtown is on the bus, you don't say, 'I'm going to take the train.' "

And this year, a new report revealed last week, State Rep. Dwight Evans and School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. relentlessly twisted arms in back rooms to make sure their favored candidate got a lucrative contract to run a high school.

Archie turned out to be phrasemaker, too.

"This is Philadelphia," he reportedly told the candidate he was forcing out. "Things are different here."

As the details revealed in the exhaustive report made plain, there is little point disputing that.

Philadelphia remains a city where official business is routinely done in the dark. Despite indictments, new ethics rules, and scathing reports, it remains a town with an entrenched culture in which the powerful circumvent the rules to get things done and the cloutless find themselves on the curb.

"There is a lot of talk in the development community about how hard it is to do business here," said Harris Steinberg, the planner leading a drive to redevelop Penn's Landing after previous efforts fell prey to corruption.

Insider demands, he said "add costs to the project, and they create uncertainty. It's not a level playing field, and I think it does a disservice to the city as a whole."

Though the bedrock realities of the city political culture often remain secret, every once in a while a little light leaks in, as when Street and Graham let loose with their unexpected moments of candor.

Another instance was when FBI wiretaps made it clear that a low-profile power broker, the late Ronald White, never elected to anything, was the secret czar over contracts and concessions at Philadelphia International Airport during the Street administration.

Then there was the testimony during former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo's trial that two of the city's most influential lawyers, David L. Cohen and Arthur Makadon, told a corporate executive in 2000 to "work it out with the senator" when Fumo demanded $50 million from his company.

The executive, Daniel Whelan, then president of Verizon Communications, never alerted the FBI to Fumo's demands, and investigators learned about it only years later. Fumo is serving a 55-month sentence on corruption charges, though he was never even charged with his actions connected to Verizon.

(In an e-mail Friday, Cohen called Whelan's trial testimony "absurd" and said the 2000 meeting involved only private citizens and had no analog to Evans' actions as a government official. Makadon also criticized Whelan, saying he had been trying to send a message to Fumo to back down. Whelan has denied that.)

The 21-page report on the dealings of Evans and Archie was another startling peek inside the political sausage factory.

Zachary Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy, the government reform and election-monitoring group, said the inquiry's depth provided real impact.

"The report has so much power to it because it is a rare look inside - you see kind of a naked use of power on the parts of Evans, assuming the facts are true," Stalberg said. "And you see a respected guy, in Archie, who's certainly willing to participate in a very unseemly process."

The report was the work of Joan Markman, a former federal prosecutor who is Mayor Nutter's chief integrity officer.

It depicted an intense struggle over who would be named to take over Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown, a school targeted for change because of its poor student achievement.

The report says Democrat Evans, a political power from Northwest Philadelphia, and SRC chairman Archie, a partner in the Duane Morris L.L.P. law firm, were determined to make sure the nonprofit Foundations Inc. got the contract.

They pushed hard for that despite firm opposition from School Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman.

They also lobbied hard for Foundations even though a school advisory panel with parent members had endorsed Foundations' competitor - and even though Archie had publicly recused himself from voting on the issue. Foundations had formerly been a client of Duane Morris, and Evans was a client.

Markman found that Archie three times set up school district meetings for Evans so the politician could make his pitch to control the King decision, including sessions immediately bracketing the School Reform Commission vote in which it selected Foundations' rival.

After that vote, Evans and Archie successfully pressured the president of the winning firm, Mosaica Turnaround Partners of Atlanta, to withdraw.

Stalberg said the report resonated because it came right after an earlier example of insider deal-making involving schools - the ultimately aborted effort to raise $405,000 in secret private donations to help defray Ackerman's $905,000 buyout package.

The people who had anonymously pledged the money bailed out as pressure grew to reveal their names.

After the Markman inquiry was released Thursday, Evans and Archie blasted it. Archie, who quit the school commission three days before the report was made public, said he was the victim of an "inquisition in search of a scapegoat."

In an internal e-mail, written when news of the secret meetings was breaking, Archie defended himself to other school officials.

"I along with my fellow Commissioners were appointed by politicians and for the public to believe that politics is not a part of the education system when the only sources of the District's revenues are local, state and federal funds further evidences the results of the 'poor academic achievement' on the part of certain adults," he wrote.

Steinberg said the e-mail was troubling.

"It may be accurate, but it's extremely cynical and it's extremely sad," he said.

While Archie was schooling Mosaica on how things work in Philadelphia, the report said, Evans was even blunter.

At the key final meeting, the report said, he told Mosaica president John Q. Porter he might start a rival high school. He also threatened that the media might somehow learn about and reveal Porter's troubles in a previous job, the report said. (In a post in Oklahoma City, Porter had been criticized for, among other things, improper billings, such as an airline trip by his wife.)

Famously now, Ackerman's deputy Leroy Nunery II, now acting superintendent, told her later that the meeting struck him like a scene from The Godfather.

In that film, of course, protagonist Michael Corleone goes from being a fresh-faced college kid to a thoroughgoing cynic. Some say Evans has changed as much in his three decades in the state House.

Fellow Democrats ousted him last year as the top Democrat on the powerful Appropriations Committee after 20 years, with some complaining of a growing sense of entitlement, a crude management style, and an unwillingness to share political spoils.

"The transformation of Evans over time is sad and has the making of a book," Stalberg said. "He's gone from a guy with tremendous leadership principle to one of those guys he didn't like when he first got to Harrisburg."

Evans has declined interviews, but he issued a statement saying he was no "puppet master" and that he had been very public about his agenda for Martin Luther King High.

"To the extent that my words or actions may have ruffled feathers, that's unfortunate," his statement read. "However, my job and my passion is to fight for our city's children."

In footnotes, the Markman report suggested the fight over the MLK school may have had even uglier elements.

At one point, Ackerman and an aide told Markman, an Evans ally and consultant to the School District warned the superintendent that her career would be hurt if the district did not award the contract to Foundations. The Evans supporter, Melonease Shaw, denied saying that.

Ackerman also said she was warned that if she blocked out Foundations, her problems with back federal taxes would be leaked to the media; news of her tax issues did indeed later break.

Markman said she wasn't about to prove that the stories were linked as part of the dispute.

In an interview, Patrick Meehan, who was the U.S. attorney in Philadelphia during the Fumo case, said Archie's comments would go down in lore with Fumo's boasts about spending "other people's money" and former U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers' recorded remark that "money talks in this business, and bull- walks."

Despite a spate of convictions, Meehan said, some political leaders still lived in a world of political spoils and fiefdoms.

Steinberg agreed.

The Markman report, he said, "really sends an image that Philadelphia is an old Northern city that has not gotten over its feudal and sometimes futile way of doing business."


Contact staff writer Craig R. McCoy at 215-854-4821 or cmccoy@phillynews.com

Inquirer staff writer Joseph Tanfani contributed to this article.

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