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Archive: June, 2010

POSTED: Monday, June 28, 2010, 8:39 AM

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POSTED: Monday, June 28, 2010, 3:00 AM
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams
In another welcome break with his predecessor, District Attorney Seth Williams is moving ahead with plans for city prosecutors to target corruption among elected officials, city workers and contractors doing business with City Hall. Williams is putting out the word to federal prosecutors and other watchdog agencies that “the DA’s office is willing to look at these cases, too,” according to Curtis Douglas, Williams’ deputy of investigations. A district attorney willing to go after bad guys in City Hall: Imagine that?
 
For the last two decades, though, it was the policy of the former district attorney not to pursue such cases. Lynne M. Abraham said she couldn’t go after other elected and appointed public officials suspected of wrongdoing because she had to rely on them and the city’s dominant Democratic Party when running for reelection. During his campaign for district attorney last year, Williams rightly described Abraham’s stance as “an embarrassment and an abdication of responsibility.” Indeed, what reputable politician — even in Philadelphia — could begrudge a district attorney who rooted out rogue officials, knowing full well that corruption threatens to taint everyone in public service?
 
Fortunately, Williams has pledged to fight municipal corruption. Coupled with the housecleaning efforts already being done by Mayor Nutter’s watchdogs — Inspector General Amy L. Kurland and Joan L. Markman, the chief integrity officer — Williams’ initiative bodes well for continuing efforts to raising ethical standards in city government. The focus is a natural outgrowth of Williams’ own tenure as inspector general, which means he should be well positioned to build on relationships developed in that role with the FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office and state attorney general. Williams’ plan to convene a “corruption task force” with federal and city officials is a good opening move, if only to establish clear lines of communication to share tips on possible areas to investigate.
 
Upon taking office, Williams decided that, due to other staffing demands, he would not set up a promised single-purpose municipal corruption unit. He has opted to leave these cases under the supervision of Douglas’ investigations unit. That’s OK, but it will be all the more important that Williams guard against letting any public corruption probes he undertakes languish despite the crush of other criminal cases. For now, the new district attorney has sent an important message to officials and citizens alike that there’s a another much-needed set of eyes watching the city’s corruption-prone political culture.
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POSTED: Monday, June 28, 2010, 2:00 AM
Philadelphia had ordered the Boy Scouts to vacate their city-owned headquarters or pay $200,000 a year in rent unless the local Cradle of Liberty Council renounces the national Scout policy banning homosexuals. (AP Photo / Matt Rourke)
The Boy Scouts’ court victory over Mayor Nutter is no a badge of honor, since it hinged on the organization’s disgraceful, antigay policy on membership and hiring. The Philadelphia-based Cradle of Liberty Council of the Scouts may have won a local court fight, but the group is losing a culture-war skirmish.
 
When even the U.S. military is soon to accept gays, it reveals how the Scouts’ policy is out of step with mainstream sentiment on wrongful discrimination. So what if the legal victory means the group can remain for now in its $1-a-year digs on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway near Logan Square? The good name and many good works of scouting are at risk as long as the policy of national scouting leaders is that — as permitted under U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2000 — gay youths and troop leaders can be barred.
 
There was no endorsement of the antigay policy, certainly, in a verdict by a U.S. District Court jury on Wednesday that the city violated the Scouts’ First Amendment rights by trying to evict them over the rule. With good reason, the previous city mayor, along with City Council members, moved to evict the Scouts in 2007 after years of wrangling. There’s simply no way to reconcile the antigay policy with the city’s ban on discrimination.
 
As long as the Scouts’ official policy is to bar homosexuals, the city has no choice but to continue to try to cut all ties. Indeed, U.S. District Judge Ronald Buckwalter urged the scouts and city to reach a deal. There are remaining issues in the court case that could be the basis for more talks. Particularly with the Scouts’ likely to claim reimbursement from the city for $860,000 in legal expenses, both sides have some incentive and leverage to reach a deal. That deal might involve a lease-sale of the building to the Scouts, or at least an accord on a rental payment that’s closer to market rate.
 
It’s not in taxpayers’ interest to foot such a large legal bill, so Nutter could seek to offset that cost with terms for the building that the Scouts might find more affordable. The Scouts’ primary incentive should be to put this controversy behind them and get on with the good work of providing mentoring and educational programs for thousands of area youth. For both the city and Scouts, a negotiated end to this dispute would be far better than dragged out court appeals over a unanimous jury verdict. Nationally, the long-term interest of Scouting would be best served by ending antigay rules.
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POSTED: Monday, June 28, 2010, 1:15 AM
Gov. Rendell is taking steps to make sure health insurance companies aren't gouging clients.

Budget time in Harrisburg is never easy, but Republican lawmakers in Washington just made it more difficult.

The legislature and Gov. Rendell were making slow progress toward balancing Pennsylvania’s budget in another year of weak tax collections. Democrats lowered their spending proposal from $29 billion — an unrealistic 4.1 percent increase over last year — to $28.2 billion, nearer the Senate Republicans’ demand of $27.5 billion.
 

It was starting to look as if Harrisburg might meet the constitutional budget deadline of June 30 for the first time in Rendell’s eight-year tenure.
 

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POSTED: Sunday, June 27, 2010, 2:00 AM
Former Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi admits he was part of the problem when he was in the U.S. Senate. (ALEX BRANDON / Associated Press)
Some of the biggest challenges facing this nation — reducing debt, fixing Social Security, reforming immigration policy — can’t be done unless Democrats and Republicans work together. Yet partisanship in Washington is at its worst level in decades. The two parties rarely agree on minor matters, let alone on the bigger problems that require hard work and political risk-taking. The crisis has grown worse partly because the more partisan voters in both parties have been voting out lawmakers whom they view as too cooperative with the opposition. The systematic weeding out of moderate lawmakers makes compromise more difficult. Regardless of which party holds the presidency or controls Congress, it’s in the nation’s best interests for both parties to work together more often. The question is how to reduce the level of partisan rancor and foster compromise.
 
Former members of Congress from both parties gathered recently at the National Archives in Washington to discuss this challenge. Their consensus: there are no quick solutions, and change will come only when voters and party leaders desire finding common ground. Trent Lott, the former Senate Republican leader from Mississippi, acknowledged he was part of the problem while serving until 2007. “The problem is us — we became such partisan warriors,” Lott said. “Men and women of goodwill have to step up and say, ‘We’re going to stop this.’ It takes work.” Tom Foley, the former Democratic speaker from Washington state, said members of opposing parties need to find ways to build friendships. Lawmakers today usually don’t bring their families to Washington to live, reducing the opportunities for socializing. “You cannot have a better personal relationship than when your children are involved,” Foley said.
 
One key way to ease partisanship is for more states to adopt nonpartisan redistricting. Every 10 years after the census, states redraw the boundaries of congressional and legislative districts. Too often in states such as Pennsylvania, the process is controlled by partisans. Their goal is to protect incumbents by creating “safe” districts that are contorted to include more Democratic or Republican voters. The advent of computer technology using voter registration patterns to redraw district boundaries has turned protecting incumbents into a science. The trend makes elections less competitive, and incumbents concern themselves more with satisfying their base of partisan voters.
 
“That polarizes the two parties,” said former Rep. Martin Frost, a Democrat from Texas.
The Iowa system, which uses a nonpartisan commission and requires geographically compact districts, helps to produce competitive elections. Pennsylvania, one of the most “gerrymandered” states in the nation, would need to approve a constitutional amendment to change its reapportionment system. Not surprisingly, the legislature has resisted this important reform. (New Jersey uses a bipartisan commission with a nonpartisan “tiebreaker” member). Voters, too, have the ability to bring about changes in attitudes among lawmakers. It can be as simple as asking a candidate to name one major piece of bipartisan legislation that he or she intends to support if elected. In the end, it requires voters who truly want their representatives to find common ground.
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POSTED: Saturday, June 26, 2010, 1:30 AM

New rules that limit how long airline passengers can be stuck on a stranded plane should be extended to international flights.

The latest horror story of customer disservice on a transatlantic flight from London to Newark shows the need for tougher regulations to force carriers to treat passengers humanely.
 

About 300 passengers were trapped Tuesday on a Virgin Atlantic plane when it was forced to land in Hartford, Conn., because of bad weather. What they endured could only be described as abuse.

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POSTED: Friday, June 25, 2010, 1:05 AM
Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams. Donors liked his school policy.

State Sen. Anthony Williams set a record by getting three individuals to each contribute more than $1 million to his failed bid in this year’s Democratic primary for governor.

The extraordinary largesse raised eyebrows, even for a state with no campaign giving limits and a governor who has raised millions over the years from firms and individuals who have profited off government contracts. The three Williams donors have refused to speak about their motives, but were said to support his stance on school choice, and in particular vouchers.
 

In the end, the three men — Joel Greenberg ($2.07 million), Jeffrey Yass ($1.86 million), and Arthur Dantchik ($1.45 million) from Susquehanna International Group in Bala Cynwyd — wasted a lot of money on a long shot.
But another troubling part of Williams’ campaign has received too little attention. That has to do with Williams’ failure to file his campaign-finance report on time.
 

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POSTED: Friday, June 25, 2010, 1:05 AM

Center City just became a bit more interesting and visitor-friendly, thanks to two initiatives that should showcase Philadelphia artists’ work as well as better guide tourists in their travels around the city.

Mayor Nutter’s push to promote the arts received a visible boost with last week’s opening of a ground-level arts office in City Hall that includes an 800-square-foot gallery.


The gallery in Room 116 will serve as the administrative roost for the city’s chief cultural officer and arts office director, Gary P. Steuer. But even more significant, the public space provides a glimpse of how more of City Hall’s ground floor might be transformed with amenities such as a cafe and other visitor services.
 

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