SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel and former Philadelphia Parking Authority Executive Director Vincent J. Fenerty are friends and neighbors.
They also, for a decade, maintained an unusual business relationship in which Fenerty signed a string of no-bid contracts to hire the police executive to conduct tasks for the agency. The work ranged from running background checks to assessing the impact of red-light cameras. Over one seven-month period, Nestel was paid more than $3,000 to clip newspaper articles about UberX.
Overall, he billed the PPA more than $100,000 over 10 years.
The relationship raises questions, including why the work wasn’t done in-house (for example, the agency has a director of its red-light camera program) and whether Fenerty should have recused himself from funneling work to a friend. Fenerty signed every contract.
The Parking Authority has offered no explanation. But after the Inquirer began asking questions, the authority said it was not renewing Nestel’s contract on March 1.
On questions about Nestel’s decade of work and why that work wasn't done in-house, the agency deferred to Fenerty. The former executive director was forced out of his job in September after it was revealed that he had sexually harassed two female subordinates.
Fenerty declined comment.
With no justification from the PPA or Fenerty, David Thornburgh, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, was left skeptical.
“On the face of it, it looks like good old-fashioned cronyism,” Thornburgh said, adding that when public dollars are at play, officials should “bend over backward to assure people that you aren’t just handing contracts to family and friends.”
Nestel, 55, defended his contracts, saying the agency kept giving him assignments because they were impressed with his work.
That work started in 2005, when the Parking Authority launched its red-light camera program. Nestel, then a graduate student in the University of Pennsylvania’s criminology program, offered to conduct a free analysis on the red-light camera program, which he intended to use as his master's degree thesis.
“After that, they actually came to me,” Nestel said in an interview last week. “They asked if I would be interested in periodically doing evaluations of intersections and monitor red-light photo enforcement.”
Fenerty and Nestel often arranged the work between themselves, documents show. Nestel’s hourly rate ranged from $50 to $65. His contracts remained below the $24,500 threshold that would have required they be publicly bid. The contracts were also small enough that they did not require board approval.
The work included more red-light camera assessments, background checks on job applicants, an employee performance audit, and an evaluation of UberX. In general, Nestel billed the PPA for attending meetings, traveling to meetings, research, consulting, and interviews.
A 2010 report into a stolen red-light camera at Red Lion Road and Roosevelt Boulevard totaled 98 hours, for a total of $4,752.
Two 2014 invoices totaled 75 hours of research on UberX, which had just been launched illegally in Philadelphia. The majority of the work was to “collate articles” and prepare summaries. He was paid $4,470 for the project.
“I think the intention was for me to do some sort of report but they never asked me for that,” Nestel said.
Nestel’s 2013 contract was the only one put out to bid — but he was the only one to apply.
Asked why only one contract was competitively bid, a parking authority spokesman again deferred to Fenerty.
“The prior executive director would have made that decision,” said Marty O’Rourke, a spokesman for the authority.
Nestel, who has many years of police experience and comes from a long line of Philadelphia police officers, has an impressive resume.
He started his career as a SEPTA transit officer in 1982 and moved over to the Philadelphia Police Department in 1985, where he rose through the ranks. During that time, he obtained a bachelor’s degree and three master's degrees in public safety, national security studies, and criminology.
In 2007, Nestel left the Philadelphia force to run the Upper Moreland Township Police Department. In 2012, SEPTA hired him as police chief; he has an annual salary of $164,736.
At SEPTA, he has become known as one of the city's most social-media-savvy cops, using Twitter feeds to give his 7,600 followers an insider's look at his job and often addressing its challenges with humor.
All along, Nestel has lived next door to Fenerty in Northeast Philadelphia. Nestel also has two children who work at the PPA: a son who works as a taxi/limousine inspector and a daughter who is an administrative assistant.
Nestel said that his employers have been aware of his consulting business. SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch said that when the agency hired Nestel, SEPTA reviewed the matter and found no conflict.
“I was very aware of the need to separate my time,” said Nestel, who is also working on his doctorate at Penn. “My consulting work was not during office hours or none of my report-writing was done during office hours. I put my heart and soul into my primary job.”
The contracts and the invoices mostly flew under the radar at the PPA.
Al Taubenberger, a City Councilman and member of the PPA board, said the board would not have been consulted about hiring Nestel because the contracts fell below the threshold that would require board approval.
The only other elected official on the board, City Commissioner Al Schmidt, did not return request for comment. Neither did Board Chairman Joseph T. Ashdale or the three other board members.
Nestel said that despite being friends and neighbors with Fenerty, he didn’t see a conflict with his contracts.
“I knew the work I was doing and I knew I was getting that work because of the quality that I had provided,” Nestel said. “My education certainly supports my ability to do that.”