Reynolds Brown drops fund-raiser plans

Blondell Reynolds Brown wanted to hold the fund-raising event to pay off Ethics Board fines.
Blondell Reynolds Brown wanted to hold the fund-raising event to pay off Ethics Board fines.
Posted: September 26, 2013

A Philadelphia city councilwoman who sought approval to hold a fund-raising event for her debts and expenses has given up the plan after the city Board of Ethics expressed strong misgivings.

One of the costs Blondell Reynolds Brown had wanted to defray: fines previously imposed on her by that same Ethics Board.

"The prospect of an important, high-level city official soliciting and accepting unlimited gifts of money through a fund-raising event to pay personal debts is of great concern to us," the board said in an opinion posted on its website, not mentioning her name or identifying her office.

"The event you have proposed creates a significant risk for violations of the City Code gift restriction," the opinion said. "Personal gifts of money to powerful government officials evoke a specter of corruption and arouse public suspicion because they harbor the possibility of undue influence."

Reynolds Brown had asked the ethics panel for a nonpublic advisory opinion that would keep her identity confidential, but her financial problems became public last January when she sought to explain her use of campaign money to repay a personal loan of $3,300 from Chaka Fattah Jr., son of U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Phila.).

After The Inquirer called Reynolds Brown's office this week to ask if she was the individual who had sought Ethics Board guidance, her attorney, Kevin Greenberg, confirmed that she was - and complained that the opinion posted online by the board had not been modified enough to protect Reynolds Brown's identity.

"The very policy reason that these requests are to be handled anonymously is to encourage officials to obtain advice," he said. "By breaching their confidentiality . . . the board undercuts its credibility, makes it less likely that future public officials will seek its advice, and willfully ignores the law."

Without confirming that opinion was directed to Reynolds Brown, the Ethics Board's executive director, Shane Creamer Jr., said its reference to a "high-level city official" could apply to hundreds of officials.

The board is legally required to publish modified versions of its nonpublic advisory opinions, and modifies them "to conceal facts that are reasonably likely to identify the requester," Creamer said.

Reynolds Brown declined direct comment, but Greenberg said he was authorized to issue this statement on her behalf:

"The councilwoman was approached by a few friends who asked if they could assist her by giving and raising funds to assist with her fines. Before accepting their generous offer, the councilwoman decided to seek advice, including obtaining 'confidential advice' from the Board of Ethics."

The board "advised her that, with certain restrictions, she could accept such funds," Greenberg's statement said. "Despite authorization from the board, the councilwoman remained concerned that there might be an appearance of impropriety. Because of this possibility . . . the councilwoman decided not to accept the offered assistance."

In fact, the ethics panel's opinion said in part: "Due to the risks of the city gift restriction being violated and a public perception of impropriety, the Board of Ethics believes the proposed fund-raising event is inadvisable, and we do not endorse such a course of action."

It said that if the official in question chose to have the event anyway, she would have to abide by language in the City Code that "prohibits city officers . . . from soliciting gifts, loans, gratuities, favors, or services of substantial economic value that might reasonably be expected to influence those in their positions in the discharge of their duties."

The board also said it would consider any contribution of $250 or more a violation of that standard.

With those restrictions, the fund-raiser would have been different from the event Reynolds Brown initially described.

In her replies to questions from the board, Reynolds Brown had said two friends - one a registered lobbyist - proposed hosting an event in one of their homes and inviting guests to "give however much they wished."

"It is contemplated that those invited to this event would be persons who care about the official personally and would be giving her a gift without any financial or political motive," she told the board.

Last January, the board levied $48,834 in fines and restitution against Reynolds Brown and her campaign committee for omissions and misstatements in her campaign finance reports and personal financial disclosures. She has paid $1,000 and her campaign $10,000 under separate schedules that stretch out the payments to 2015.

The board has also fined her separately for undisclosed acceptance of gifts, loans, and outside income.

Reynolds Brown previously told The Inquirer that the misuse of campaign funds was a lapse in judgment in the middle of a personal financial crisis, stemming from disputes with her estranged husband. She said she needed Fattah's loan to save her Wynnefield home from foreclosure.

Brown receives a salary of $131,593 as Council's Democratic whip.

warnerb@phillynews.com

215-854-5885.

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