Prober seeking independence

Inspector general says post ought to be free of mayor's office

Like so many cases of corruption in city government, there was nothing grand about this one.

A resident wanted to join a program that would subsidize his heating bill, but he didn't qualify because he earns too much.

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Inspector General Seth Williams' office uncovers petty corruption by city employees, as well as by residents.

Not to worry. A Licenses and Inspections employee simply ignored the income criterion and signed the person up. In exchange, the grateful resident took the employee on a shopping spree at Old Navy and picked up the roughly $200 tab.

Rather than the classic "pay to play," in which an elected official promises something in exchange for campaign contributions, this was small-minded sleaze, which in this case may result in a criminal investigation.

This kind of petty corruption, which sours the public's view of municipal government while increasing the burden on taxpayers, happens all the time, says Philadelphia Inspector General Seth Williams, whose staff of 11 gets about 30 new cases of alleged corruption every month.

But Williams, a former assistant district attorney who two years ago lost a bruising primary election to incumbent District Attorney Lynne Abraham, says he needs more resources and independence to do the job.

Yesterday, he made a pitch to Mayor Street.

"We talked about our mutual vision to educate employees and the public so that we can deter corruption," Williams said after the meeting.

Although he didn't leave his boss' office with an immediate promise of more investigators, Williams said he and Street plan to meet again to discuss the future of the inspector general's office.

One issue that Williams wants to broach is the need for an independent inspector general, freed from connections to the mayor's office.

Williams says the city would be better served by a city charter-based inspector general with a fixed term in office, more independence, and a more secure budget. The inspector general now is a creature of a mayoral executive order.

Williams cautions that he's not accusing Street of exerting any influence on the conduct of his inquiries.

"All he's told me is to be as aggressive as possible, but I think the public's perception remains that the office is not independent," Williams said.

Investigations are labor-intensive enterprises.

"It's not like fishing in a barrel, and they aren't like watching someone selling crack in an open-air market," he said. "This office really needs to increase the number of auditors and investigators."

He points to Chicago, with a population twice the size of Philadelphia's and an inspector general with 71 staffers, including forensic auditors and police investigators.

The complaints that flow into Williams' office are varied: An employee demands $100 to turn off water at a property; a city employee is getting harassing phone calls at work; a sanitation employee won't pick up trash unless he gets cash; fraudulent checks get sent to the city Revenue Department; a bar owner allegedly pays off an L&I inspector; a city employee lives outside the city.

Since July 1, Williams' office has uncovered 31 city employees who were living outside the city. All have been terminated in a program Williams calls Operation Border Patrol.

Another initiative, which he's dubbed Operation Muddy Water, is focused on employees in the Water Department and Water Revenue Bureau who have run up substantial unpaid water bills.

Water Commissioner Bernard Brunwasser said that an initial inquiry turned up 150 employees who owed $260,000. He also sent a letter to employees urging them to pay their bills.

The inspector general has received about 54 cases for further investigation, Brunwasser said, including instances in which a city employee's water was turned off and later was found to have been illegally restored.

"We are investigating to see if there is corruption here," Williams said. "Is there favoritism being given to department employees?"

Williams says he wants to move the city away from its "corrupt but contented" past. Instead of an office that lurks in the background, he's preparing to go public much more often. He's already enhanced the city Web site. Starting in May he wants to hold quarterly briefings with the news media to discuss closed cases.

"This is all part of a multi-pronged attack to inform the public and employees that someone is watching, that someone is trying to enforce the regulations that we do have, that we are conducting sting operations to catch employees where there are allegations of inappropriate activity on the taxpayers' time," he said.

But it's not all about corrupt city employees. The inspector general is also charged with investigating corrupt citizens trying to bribe city employees.

"Most city employees are out there doing their jobs," Williams said.

Some have reported illegal efforts to turn city employees to the dark side. In fact, Williams has created an annual award, the W. Wilson Goode Sr. Award, named for the mayor who established the first inspector general in the mid-'80s.

Williams has stepped up the number of talks he makes to civic groups. He gives attendees his phone number - 215-686-1770 - and, lately, a pretty simple message: "The public needs to know there is no service provided by a municipal employee that requires a citizen to give that employee cash." *