Clout: Crafty Butkovitz bought up Rhynhart websites

Two interesting things happened in Philadelphia politics on Dec. 14.

Rebecca Rhynhart resigned from Mayor Kenney’s administration to run for city controller in the May 16 Democratic primary election.

And five website domain names were registered that could easily be mistaken for representing her new campaign, since they all included a combination of her name with “Philadelphia” or the office she is seeking.

Welcome to the age of the digital dirty trick.

Voters who happen upon four of those five websites are quickly redirected to the campaign website for City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a Democrat seeking a fourth four-year term.  The fifth site redirects to an April 2016 Philadelphia Magazine story in which City Council President Darrell Clarke complained about a lack of diversity in the leadership of departments overseen by Rhynhart as Kenney’s chief administration officer.

Rhynhart’s real campaign website is RebeccaForPhiladelphia.com. Butkovitz’s campaign tricksters must have missed that one.

We’ve seen this gimmick before. Real estate developer Ori Feibush, in an unsuccessful 2015 bid to unseat City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson in the Democratic primary, registered three websites using his foe’s name. Those sites still feature criticism of Johnson and his record.

Maurice Floyd, who has been witness to — and, dare we say, perpetrator of— decades of political shenanigans, runs Butkovitz’s political operation. He calls the trick websites a sign of the times.

“It’s 2017,” Floyd said. “Before you announce [a campaign] or talk to reporters, you should buy your own domains.”

Rhynhart confirmed for us her impending candidacy for a story, just a few days before she left Kenney’s administration.  So Butkovitz’s crew was ready when she entered the race.

“We just put those up to redirect folks to our campaign,” Floyd said. “It generates quite a bit of traffic. If you’re looking for her, you really fall right into whatever kind of message we’re trying to present to the public. It works.”

Anna Adams-Sarthou, a spokeswoman for Rhynhart’s campaign, shrugged off the website skullduggery as “pretty funny” and then knocked Butkovitz for his nearly three decades in public office, including a stint as a state representative.

“After 27 years in office, it’s amusing that this is Butko’s boldest campaign strategy,” she said.

Sarandon: Vote for Krasner

Larry Krasner, the civil rights attorney running for district attorney, on Wednesday landed the highly coveted Susan Sarandon endorsement. This is a potential game-changer that could swing the seven-way Democratic primary in Krasner’s direction. (Insert eye-roll emoji here, because our system doesn’t have that button.)

We have no idea why the Academy Award-winning actress is so interested in the Philly DA race, or why she tweeted about it six times. Although Philly Mag noted on Thursday that she did join a protest at the Democratic National Convention here last summer.

And: Krasner has branded himself as the only candidate who will never seek the death penalty, and Sarandon starred in Dead Man Walking, the 1995 anti-death-penalty flick. So there’s that. But we’re not inclined to spend any more time on this. Happy hour is 30 minutes away.

Krasner’s camp was delighted, tweeting back to @SusanSarandon: “Made our day - thank you, Susan! We need all supporters/support we can muster to create real change for justice.”

But Sarandon’s backing didn’t go over so well in the audience at Wednesday evening’s forum for DA candidates. Clout overheard a few attendees (mostly lawyers) making snide remarks about the actress and asking sarcastically whether she lived in Philly.

Judge on Seth case: Peace out

Last week, we told you about an awkward little coincidence: Common Pleas Court Judge Abbe Fletman had been assigned to handle preliminary objections in a civil lawsuit filed by former District Attorney Lynne Abraham and defense attorney Richard Sprague to have Seth Williams booted out of the DA's Office. (Williams is operating with a suspended law license because of that pesky looming federal corruption trial.)  

Fletman previously had served as Williams' attorney when an opponent tried to get him kicked off the ballot during the 2009 Democratic primary race; Williams' political action committees paid more than $65,000 to Flaster Greenberg, the law firm that employed Fletman at the time.

Would she stay on the case? We couldn't say for sure — not everyone returns Clout's calls, y'know.

But court records show that Fletman opted to recuse herself on Thursday. Fletman claimed she hasn't had any contact with Williams since 2009, according to the records, but she still opted to step aside.  "Because this case involves the fitness of a public official to serve, public confidence in the fairness of the process is paramount," Fletman wrote.  

Staff writers Chris Brennan, David Gambacorta, and William Bender contributed to this column. Tips: clout@philly.com.

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