This post is part of a larger series.
For the potentially litigious, I want to preface this entire post and its title with, “in my opinion.” I’m joking, but only half joking.
It’s no secret—Philadelphia has a governance problem. The city is infamous for its many (in my opinion, from here on out) corruption cases, its petty political spats, and general inefficiency of government agencies. These local political disputes, the culture of corruption, and general inefficiency have had terrible effects, including:
- Harming everyday citizens by depriving them of programmatic resources and treating them unfairly;
- Shattering the confidence of the public in their government;
- Serving as a negative example of governance, which fuels critics who would further deprive the city of resources.
Philadelphia desperately needs more funding for is programs, which, I argue, is a large driver of the city’s poverty and inequality. However, even if the City had a blank check today to fund its programs, nobody would have the confidence that the government would efficiently or fairly distribute those dollars—and perhaps rightfully so. Hence, corruption and inefficiency are a major roadblock to reducing poverty and inequality.
First, I want to briefly go over the extent of the corruption problem, our most critical issue. I cannot possibly enumerate all of the cases, but I can show its extent with a few major ones.
Let’s just quickly go through some of the largest known cases.
Local Union 98: The FBI recently indicted John Dougherty, more famously known as Johnny Doc, the head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. The indictment also implicates City Councilman Bobby Henon, other union officials, and the head of a construction company. Together, they are accused of more than 100 counts of bribery, embezzlement, and wire fraud. Two specific cases include Dougherty and Henon collaborating to threaten the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and Comcast to offer Local 98 favorable contracts and chances to bid, otherwise Henon would use his position as Councilman to stall or revoke various types of business certifications and licenses. For instance, Henon got the Department of Licenses and Inspections to issue a stop order for MRI machine installation and to refuse to issue a certificate of occupancy. Although they are indicted, they deny guilt and are fighting these cases. Many Philadelphians consider this to have been an open secret for decades, and are not at all surprised to learn of the indictments.
Former DA Seth Williams: In 2017, Seth Williams (then District Attorney) pled guilty to accepting bribes. Williams was charged by the FBI with 29 counts of extortion, bribery, and fraud, which included accepting gifts in order to lessen sentences. Williams currently faces up to five years in prison.
State Representative District 190: Vanessa Lowery Brown, the former PA State Representative for District 190 in West Philadelphia, recently pled guilty to accepting bribes. During an FBI sting operation, Brown accepting $4,000 from an undercover agent in exchange for pushing for proposed laws. To rub salt in the wound, ward leaders for the district choose the Democratic candidate for the special election, rather than going to a primary. Chaka Fattah’s former staffer was expected to be the pick, but because of residency issues (he apparently does not actually reside in the district), the ward leaders chose Darryl Thomas. However, just days later, Congressman Bob Brady announced that the party would be withdrawing Thomas due to residency concerns (yes, really), and the party quickly chose the current Democratic candidate, Movita Johnson-Harrell. Since the district is overwhelmingly registered Democrats, she is extremely likely to defeat the challengers from other parties.
Congressman Bob Brady: Bob Brady’s long-time political consultant, Ken Smukler, was charged late last year with campaign finance violations by a federal jury. Prosecutors alleged that he had paid off Brady’s 2012 election opponent with $90,000. Although it is not actually illegal to strike a deal to get an opponent to drop out, what was illegal was the way in which Brady’s staffer conducted the payment. The payment was too large to be allowed under campaign finance laws, so he disguised the payoff as a series of phony payments for services. Bob Brady himself was not charged, and prosecutors allowed the statute of limitations for his case to expire, but he announced that he will not be seeking reelection. When asked why he is stepping down after more than 20 years, he affirmed that it has nothing to do with the campaign finance case, and that he is choosing family over politics.
City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson: Kenyatta Johnson represents a district that includes the Point Breeze neighborhood of South Philadelphia, a rapidly gentrifying area. In 2015, a prominent real estate developer in the area, Ori Feibush, ran against Johnson. Later, he alleged in a court case that Johnson had used his “councilman prerogative” to block Feibush’s developments in retaliation for challenging his seat. Councilman prerogative is the accepted practice that each City Councilmember has the right to block developments or other activities in his or her district. The justification is that each district member knows his or her district best. Others have also claimed that Johnson has been abusing his powers as a councilperson to sell properties, and to require developers to use his favored contractors. Then, news surfaced that the FBI is investigating Johnson in a case where he allegedly facilitated the sale of city properties to his friend for prices far below market value. Most recently, news has surfaced that the FBI is more directly investigating Johnson, though it is not confirmed by officials. Johnson’s future is unclear, but it is just one of many cases of alleged abuse of councilman prerogative in the City Council’s history.
Former Congressman Chaka Fattah: Chaka Fattah served as a Congressman for 11 terms, until federal investigators charged him with 29 counts of racketeering and bribery. A jury found him guilty on 23 counts, and he is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence, and remains hopeful for the appeals process. However, an appeals court so far has only thrown out five of those convictions after the federal government changed the definition of bribery, and he remains in prison. Fattah was one of the most powerful Philadelphia politicians before his downfall, and many currently serving officials worked with him as an aide.
These are just a handful of the most recent cases. Philadelphia, unfortunately, has decades of corruption cases from representatives and elected officials. Vice News recently published an article outlining Philadelphia’s many corruption scandals, titled “Is Philadelphia the Most Corrupt City in America?” In it, the author examines some of the above cases, as well as two Philadelphia judges who were removed from the bench for ruling in favor of their friends, seven traffic judges who were convicted on corruption charges, the whole Philadelphia Parking Authority as being used as a patronage machine, a former School Reform Commissioner who resigned after a scandal, and even former Mayor Michael Nutter after being accused of using The Mayor’s Fund as a slush fund for friends. A writer for The Philadelphia Citizen wrote an impassioned plea for an end to our culture of corruption in response to this article. The author cites similar corruption cases, and lays blame on all of us for willfully turning a blind eye to corruption. They even created mock political trading cards of major figures in Philadelphia’s decades-old corruption history. Similarly, this author focuses on Kenyatta Johnson’s case, highlighting the ugly aspects of councilman prerogative. Philadelphia even made national news in a recent New York Times article covering corruption in America’s largest cities. Regardless of where you look, it is fairly easy to find piles of public corruption cases in Philadelphia, unfortunately.
I wanted to see if there are any statistics on corruption, to see how Philly stacks up with other localities in the US. There aren’t really any, unfortunately. The best I could find is this report, spearheaded by a professor in Chicago. The researchers found the following statistics:
Unfortunately, Philadelphia is not alone in this problem. This professor’s report shows that, as of 2016, the federal eastern Pennsylvania district, which is dominated by Philly, has 983 convictions since 1976. Philadelphia doesn’t have nearly as many convictions as places like Chicago or LA, but those regions also have far larger populations. Really it is places like Cleveland and Newark that seem to have the highest rates, since they have relatively low populations. And, remember that this data only reports those who were successfully convicted—there are likely many more corruption cases beneath the surface.
In sum, Philadelphia has a decades-long corruption problem that reaches across all types of officials. The data confirms our daily experiences.
Even in cases that do not include corruption, Philadelphia is notorious for its inefficiency. I set out to see if this can be explained away as over exaggerated complaints, or if this really is true. I found that there are indeed many recorded cases of extreme inefficiency. But, I also want to point out that there are many other aspects of the government that have been working seamlessly. We just don’t notice these aspects enough to complain about them, since they don’t bother us in our day to day lives.
First, let’s start with some of the obvious cases. Although SEPTA is not directly managed by the City government, it provides a perfect example of inefficiency in city services. SEPTA rolled out its keycard system in 2017. Because of historic frustrations with SEPTA, many people did not trust that this would go according to plan—and they were right, unfortunately. WHYY reports that the project was initially planned to be completed in 2013, but was delayed by three years. Now it is scheduled to be completely finished in 2020, and the costs have risen to $298 million, after originally being budgeted at $175 million. These additional costs and delays are intended to fix the terrible user interfaces on fare kiosks and the website, among other issues. These issues were so frustrating to one writer at Billy Penn that she published a satirical piece titled, “10 things that take less time than reloading your SEPTA key.” As somebody who rides SEPTA multiple times daily, I can relate to these issues, and I must admit that I was one of the skeptics when the key was first introduced. This is a perfect example of an upgrade to the city that should be relatively simple to implement, has already been successfully done in almost all other cities, but that Philadelphia has been unable to execute.
A second major example is the local election system, which is managed by the Office of the City Commissioners. A report from the Committee of Seventy, an election reform advocacy organization, highlights several cases of inefficiency, waste, and conflict of interest. For instance, more than 17,000 valid voter registrations were not completed until one week before the November 2016 election. In the 2012 presidential election, more than 27,000 voters were forced to use provisional, paper ballots. The City has also faced several lawsuits for failures to create access to the polls for people with limited English proficiency or with mobility restrictions. The report also highlights that there are three elected offices with the overlapping duty of overseeing elections, but with no clear delineations of who is responsible for what. This creates redundancies. What’s more, one commissioner has been found to be not showing up to work, while still receiving his $138,000 salary. He is also going to receive a $500,000 lump sum upon retirement and a $10,000 per month pension. Overall, Philadelphia spends $9.18 per voter, while comparable counties pay $4.68 per voter. Finally, there is the most extreme issue—that city commissioners are not required to give up other offices or to be replaced when ballot questions would impact their offices. Because of this, the very people overseeing elections have also been ward leaders and other elected roles, with a serious stake in the election outcomes. Likewise, the very people whose office would be curtailed or eliminated by ballot questions will oversee those elections.
Next, there are hiring practices. Upon taking office, Mayor Kenney asked the Pew Charitable Trusts to conduct research on the City’s hiring practices, since they are perceived to be inefficient. In this report, Pew found that the median time between submitting an application and being selected was a whopping 360 days. Pew found that this is caused by several factors, many of which stem from the civil service system. Currently, 81% of the City’s 30,000 employees fall within this system. Under civil service rules, employers must use a rigid points system, and can only consider certain types of candidates. For instance, candidates have to take a test, and they receive bonus points for various factors like foreign language proficiency. Employers can also only consider the two candidates with the highest scores, and they cannot move onto other candidates until those two have opted out or have been deselected. On top of all of this, Philadelphia does not have a centralized recruiting office. Instead, each department or office is responsible for recruiting candidates.
These are just some of the high profile cases. The best source I have found by far for examining broader structural issues with government efficiency is the City’s own Office of the Controller. The City’s controllers act as government watchdogs. Their duty is to audit the City every year through regular reports, and to conduct specialized audits of different departments or programs as they see fit. It should be noted that they have limited resources, and can therefore only focus on certain cases. Also, the head of the office is an elected position, and so the office inevitably is impacted by politics. Despite this, the audits this office offers are our most comprehensive and detailed resource available.
There are too many audits to detail here, but I will highlight some of the most critical ones. For all recent audits, see this page.
2017 Annual Auditor’s Report on City Departments: This annual audit found deficiencies in controls on employee overtime and sick leave. 12 departments lack proper authorization procedures for overtime. In one case, one employee alone accrued $42,000 of overtime in just seven months. Non-civil service employees also accrued $46,000 in undocumented sick leave. Finally, $102 million in payment vouchers were approved without the proper procedures of having high-level signatures.
2017 Report on Internal Control, Compliance, and Other Matters: This report highlights several major issues in the City’s accounting processes. This resulted in $33 million being unaccounted for, and in a whopping $924 million in errors while preparing the City’s annual financial report. Overall, the report found that there were an insufficient number of staff members, a lack of oversight, and a lack of investment in technology. They also found a lack of segregation of payroll duties, unauthorized individuals approving payroll, slow transfers of funds from bank accounts, lax monitoring of adjustments to tax accounts, and weak information technology controls. Rebecca Rhynhart, the Chief Controller, wrote that, “The material weaknesses and significant deficiencies in internal control over financial reporting are not isolated incidents; they are indicative of a much larger problem.” Surprisingly, the 2017 report for the School District found no such deficiencies.
2017 Report on the City’s Use of Federal and State Grants: This report found several cases of non-compliance and failures to report on the use of grant dollars. For instance, the $8.6 million federal grant that helped pay for the Democratic National Convention in 2016 required that the City complete and publish an audit on the dollars, which it has not done. They also found that the City catalogued the money incorrectly, and when the agency responsible was informed, they said that they still believe their accounting practices are sufficient. As another example, the Philadelphia Fire Department submitted inaccurate financial reports for its federal grant. Finally, they found that the City failed to report or failed to accurately report sub-grants made through five federal grants. These errors totaled $14.7 million.
July 2012-April 2018 Report on Effectiveness and Compliance with Sexual Harassment Policies and Procedures: The Controller’s Office found that the City has a decentralized, unclear, and inconsistent process for reporting sexual harassment or resolving cases. This leaves employees inadequately protected. The Controller’s Office also opened a sexual harassment reporting phone line, and they found that the number of cases is likely far greater than what is officially processed.
Report on Computers and High-Tech Equipment: The City lacks an adequate system for recording and accounting for its technology. This report found that it could not locate 47% of the pieces of equipment that it sampled from an inventory list. Much of the equipment has been in the database since 1989.
Review of Bigbelly Operations: There is currently no tracking or maintenance system for the City’s Bigbelly trash cans, which are the solar powered trash compactors throughout Center City. Additionally, the Bigbelly software has had an outage since January of 2017, making 82% of the Bigbelly trashcans effectively normal trashcans. This software still costs the City $130,000 each year in subscription fees.
2016 Review of Pothole Repair and Response: This report reviewed over 21,000 records of pothole repair cases. They found that 22% of the cases were not repaired within the three-day window that the Streets Department sets for itself. 52 took more than 100 days, and one case of 11 potholes took 15 months for a response.
These are just a handful of the cases available on the Office of the Controller’s website, and the cases on there are only the cases they had the resources to tackle. There is likely much more under the surface. So, clearly there are some fundamental administrative issues with the City government.
An essay published in 1912 shows that these are not at all new issues. It states that then-Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg’s campaign in 1911 focused on reforming governance. He stated his platform as, “Only one favored contractor—the lowest possible bidder; one hundred cents return for every dollar expended; no illegal or wasteful use of city funds; current receipts must pay current expenses; new loans for permanent improvements; fitness, not party service, the first consideration for appointment to office…” The report cites many of these issues, calling the city budget a “grab-bag of individual and unrelated appropriations” that cannot be summarized as a cohesive financial report. This is part of a laundry list of other issues, such as making copies by hand or carrying out insufficient and ineffective inspections of programs. Due to perceived inefficiency and corruption, this led to a movement that created the Civil Service Commission, the current bidding process, and the current system of executive departments. We are now feeling the inefficient byproducts of some of these reforms, ironically.
The current situation is not nearly as bad as this author describes Philadelphia in 1912, but we do face many similar issues. However, there are hopeful changes. City residents approved a ballot initiative in May of 2017 to switch from the “lowest bidder” system that former Mayor Blankenburg advocated for to a “best value” bidding system. This allows the City to consider more than just price when considering contractors. Maybe now we can avoid fiascos like the SEPTA keycard case. Additionally, Mayor Kenney signed a series of executive orders after taking office to address inefficiency and ethics in government. This created the Office of the Chief Integrity Officer and the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer. The City has been working to overhaul many of its systems, such as with its recent project to upgrade its website for easier access to information.
Clearly, corruption and inefficiency within local government remain a major roadblock to improving living conditions in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, I confirmed the general sentiment of distrust in our government by looking into the catalogued cases. As long as our government remains a poor steward of public dollars, and as long as people do not have trust in the government, we cannot make necessary reforms to combat poverty and inequality.