Ethics board acting . . . well, ethically

For the first time in Philadelphia history, a city agency is putting some teeth into campaign-finance laws.

The Philadelphia Board of Ethics, dramatically strengthened in a public referendum a year ago, is flexing its new jaw muscles for the first time.

On Tuesday, the board took a $56,000 bite out of Chaka Fattah's mayoral campaign, requiring him to return a $20,000 contribution and to repay $36,767 in campaign expenses that had been improperly picked up by an earlier "exploratory committee."

The panel also issued a statement saying it was "currently engaged in multiple investigations of potential violations of the city's campaign finance laws."

It tentatively moved up its next meeting from May 15 - the date of the primary election - to May 8, to bring more public attention in case any current investigations are completed.

The board also disclosed a series of "corrective actions" involving 15 other campaigns and political-action committees. Among them:

_ Sheriff John Green returned $13,500 to the Laborers Union PAC and his opponent, Michael Untermeyer, gave back $20,000 to a Chester Springs couple. Both had exceeded the new city limits on campaign donations.

_ Councilman Jim Kenney returned $5,000 of the $15,000 his campaign borrowed last year from the Fumo for Senate Committee.

_ Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller set up a bank account to handle $7,000 in excess contributions from developers Darryl McCormick, Harold Thomas and James Thomas, and an attorney, Mike Choi. She is legally barred from using the money on her re-election campaign, but may be able to use it for other purposes, once the election is over.

_ Plumbers Local 690 and the regional carpenters union, both major players in local Democratic politics, agreed to provide the city with electronic data on campaign finance, allowing the city Records Department to post the material on its Web site.

_ Six other unidentified PACs that had submitted reports on last year's activities were given a week to submit new reports with more complete information. Each had omitted more than 20 pieces of data required by state law, such as the occupations or employers of major donors.

Since the state's campaign-finance laws took shape in the mid-1970s, similar problems have usually been overlooked by local and state authorities.

But the new Board of Ethics, chaired by attorney Richard Glazer and run by interim executive director Shane Creamer Jr., is forcing candidates and their PACs to toe lines that some had barely noticed before.

"We are changing the way people do business and we intend to continue doing so," said Creamer, son of a former state attorney general, in a phone interview yesterday.

There's been a city board of ethics since the 1960s, but until last year, its members served at the mayor's pleasure and the panel was rarely heard from.

Former City Councilman Michael Nutter pushed a measure through Council in 2005 to make the board independent, with its own budget, its members initially appointed by the mayor but needing confirmation from Council, for five-year terms. Voters approved the charter change last spring. *

Staff writer Mark McDonald contributed to this report.