Wednesday, July 8, 2015

How can we stop the next Fumo?

How can we stop the next Fumo?

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Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about how to stop the next Vince Fumo. We know this won’t be the last time a public official flagrantly misuses tax dollars. There has been a lot of debate about Fumo’s relatively short sentence. I don’t know if it was fair. But I do  know that fraud and corruption are rarely crimes committed alone. Fumo was able to use public money for enriching himself because far too few people were willing to tell him it was wrong.

Think about it. How does a bully on the playground get operate in immunity? No one stands up to him. Now, Fumo didn’t bully people with physical violence—at least that we know of.  Instead, he bullied people with power. One of the reasons that he had so much power was because he controlled vast sums of tax dollars. He was able to deploy that money—which is OUR money—to achieve his desired political ends.

And no one was willing to tell him it was wrong. You only have to look at the names of the more than 250 people who wrote to the judge asking for lenience. It’s a who’s who of local politics. I count a governor, several senators, former judges, and a city councilman among the power brokers willing to go to bat for a convicted felon.

The argument goes like this: Yes, Vince Fumo often misbehaved. He regarded tax dollars and the levers of government as his own personal piggybanks. But he was also incredibly effective. He managed to bring billions of dollars to Philadelphia from Harrisburg and championed many worthy causes. And in South Philadelphia, ordinary citizens were happy the streets were clean. So, we should forgive the sins of Fumo and mourn the loss of the financial windfall that accompanied his time in power.

Of course, many of the people who wrote to the judge had a selfish reason to back Fumo. He wasn’t the only one who benefited from the corruption. He generated millions of dollars in fees for lobbyists, lawyers, and steered countless grants to favored non-profits. No, Fumo did not get rich alone. He was able to manipulate the political process because he had allies. And those allies were rewarded handsomely—with our tax dollars.  Why blow a whistle on the process if it’s benefiting you?

So, how do we stop the next Fumo? People have to start saying no. Of course, that can be a dangerous thing. If you're a business and a lawmaker threatens your livelihood unless you play ball-- which is
exactly what Fumo did to Peco when he got them to write a checkfor $17 million-- how do you say no?

It's important to keep in mind that saying "no" is possible. Verizon did it. As detailed here (link to Sunday piece?) the head of Verizon managed to push back on Fumo's demands.   It's not easy, especially in the real world.

Employees who are ordered to pick up dry cleaning or do political work on state time might have a hard time confronting their boss about ethical lapses.

So how do we stop the next Fumo?  Have you confronted ethics conflicts or had to deal with politicians who offer quid pro quos?  How can this culture be stopped? Send your stories or ideas.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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