Helen Ubinas: Council's not exactly the Ethical Society

Posted: February 15, 2013

IN NEED of a quiet afternoon? Call a bunch of City Council members and say you want to chitchat about ethics.

Mention Council Majority Whip Blondell Reynolds Brown, who was recently fined for lying about how she spent campaign funds.

Other than the sound of circling wagons, you'll get mostly nada.

In their defense, a few might have been busy trying to figure out the answers to my questions about Council's dormant Ethics Committee.

Didn't know the Council had one? Don't feel bad. A few members weren't even sure they served on it.

Umm. No? Yes? Wait . . .

Smart staffers were quick enough to look it up mid-um.

All Council members serve on the Ethics Committee. In theory.

In reality, the committee hasn't done jack in more than 30 years.

By jack, I mean a handful of meetings to amend the city's standards of conduct and ethics in the late '80s and '90s - yep, there's a Council code of conduct. Surprise!

In 1982 there was a hearing of some sort about then-Majority Leader Harry Jannotti and his part in the infamous Abscam scandal. Feds videotaped Jannotti and others taking bribes from an agent posing as an Arab sheik.

Council's chief clerk, Michael Decker, who efficiently researched the history of the committee on deadline, couldn't say if anything came of it. Jannotti ended up resigning from office days before being sentenced to six months in prison and being fined $2,000.

With such a hands-off approach, you'd think it hasn't been three corruption-filled decades on Council. Wrong.

Besides Jannotti, two other Council members got snagged in the Abscam scandal. Louis Johanson and Council President George X. Schwartz. Oh, and in case you thought that a stint in federal prison ends your political career in Philly, think again. Jannotti was later elected ward leader in west Kensington.

In 1987, Councilman Lee Beloff - who called his Council seat a hobby - was convicted of conspiring with reputed mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo to extort $1 million from a waterfront developer.

In 1991, Councilman Jimmy Tayoun was convicted of paying and accepting bribes, engaging in mail fraud and cheating on taxes. He later wrote Going to Prison? a how-to book for making it in the big house.

In 2006, Councilman Rich Mariano joined the Philly Council wall of shame when he was convicted of bribery. When he got out of jail, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy.

And those are just the Council members who went to jail.

How about John Street, who had to pay thousands in back taxes. He was later elected mayor - twice.

And Councilman Angel Ortiz, who drove without a license for 25 years, many of those in a city car?

And what about Brown?

She's not a bad person, one Council member told me.

No one feels worse about what happened than she does, said another. None of the Council members I spoke with could see any reason for the Ethics Committee to meet.

Council President Darrell Clarke didn't get back to me, but he told KYW Newsradio last month that he had "no opinion about whether Council's long-dormant Ethics Committee should be charged with reviewing the violations of the councilwoman."

"You don't really expect them to call out one of their own, do you?" a longtime insider told me.

This is the city where Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell famously said, during discussions of the formation of city's Board of Ethics, that Council was "ethics'd out."

But this is also a city full of people who are clearly all corruption'd out. Just look at them - all defeated and resigned and sad-looking when yet another Philly politician goes bad.

Considering my recent diagnosis of the chronic Philly Shrug™, I find it necessary to offer some treatment options.

Studies have shown that there is no better cure to the potentially terminal condition than steady doses of righteous outrage, followed by vigilant demands for action.

So, take a big swig of outrage, people, and call your Council members in the morning.

Send a message that constituents take ethics seriously.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

" @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen. Ubinas

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