Karen Heller: A moment of corrupt clarity in Philadelphia politics

Posted: September 28, 2011

Every so often, in the thick fog of local politics, sunlight appears, offering clarity. Like the Fumo trial featuring Other People's Money, other people being you. And the recent report on the Dwight Evans-Robert Archie verbal working over of an Atlanta charter-school operator, now known as the Godfather meeting.

The investigation revealed power brokers delivering a brash civics primer. "Things are different here" and "Philadelphia does not operate by the usual rules," they counseled in attempting to secure a $50 million contract for a rival local operator, everything here being local.

When these rare moments of transparency occur, optimists - we misguided few - dare to believe that reform can come to this ossified, arthritic culture.

And then you remember City Council.

"People had a meeting, and they disagreed," Marian Tasco said. "Folks fight for their point of view. What's wrong with that?"

Tasco views herself as a reformer who yearns to be Council president, an ally of Michael Nutter, who's playing the Gary Cooper role in this civics version of High Noon.

"I think having this out in the public right now without any law enforcement agency doing due diligence is a disservice," said Jim Kenney, adding, "Dwight deserves the benefit of the doubt until law enforcement looks at this."

Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman, the report's author, spent 20 years in the U.S. Attorney's Office working on several high-profile government cases, including the Corey Kemp-Ron White fiasco that embroiled the last mayor but didn't impede his reelection because, after all, this is Philadelphia. Evans, in his exquisite hubris, refused to meet with Markman.

We get the politics. But there's something deeply disturbing with thwarting a legitimate, community-based process, upending the SRC's decision and, when these efforts fail, strong-arming a legitimate school operator.

"Sometimes the most powerful survive," mused Philadelphia philosopher Frank Rizzo, Part II. "That's what politics is all about. Powerful people have the ability to deliver projects. . . . Dwight used that power to be helpful to a legitimate organization. There's nothing wrong with that."

There's nothing wrong with that. Should be Council's motto.

"There's a whole lot of fact-finding, but what is the point of that if there's no recommendation for the future?" said Councilman Bill Green, adding that "we should be focusing our attention on the appointment process of who puts people on the School Reform Commission in the first place." Eleven Council members didn't respond, possibly subscribing to the maxim, "Hey, what's in it for me?"

Philadelphia is a big city and a small town. Most people never seem to leave, other than to the Jersey Shore. Folks view government jobs as a birthright. Philadelphia Syndrome is not knowing otherwise because you've never lived anywhere else.

Local politicians view themselves as rulers of local fiefdoms. Evans presides over Dwightland, while Vince once ran Fumo World, that is until his sweeping corruption trial, where he was convicted on all 137 counts. (At Monday's hearing for resentencing, we learned Fumo's grown a long beard and hair in prison, resembling more a member of ZZ Top than a once-powerful state senator.)

Bringing in money and contorting rules are generally valued over ethical behavior and reform. For 85 years, power was controlled by an entrenched, calcified, pay-to-play Republican machine. Then - like magic! - the next 60 years, the city's run by an entrenched, calcified, pay-to-play Democratic one.

Lincoln Steffens' observation that the city is corrupt and contented is more than a century old. Well, politicians are content until they're caught. Fumo's lawyer said his client is "very depressed."

Decades from now, subsequent power brokers will counsel "things are different here" and "Philadelphia does not operate by the usual rules" and "there's nothing wrong with that." True, there's momentary sunshine, the engulfing fog is sure to return.

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com, or @kheller on Twitter. Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller

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