David L. Cohen on DNC bonuses: I would have quashed them

David L. Cohen has parted company with his old boss Ed Rendell on the issue of nearly $1 million in bonuses the former governor and mayor approved for staff of the host committee for the 2016 Democratic National Convention. 

Cohen, now senior executive vice president at Comcast Corp., but once Rendell's chief of staff when mayor, said he was never told of the bonus plan while serving as a host committee special adviser. 

“Nobody ever ran the idea of giving any bonuses to anyone in connection with the host committee of the convention,” Cohen said Thursday evening. “Had they done so, I would’ve done everything in my power to kill the concept.”

Cohen, who was instrumental in the host committee’s fund-raising efforts, said he learned of the bonuses last week, when the Inquirer and Daily News reported that in November, the committee used part of its surplus to give out more than $900,000 in bonus checks. The highest bonus, $310,000, went to the committee’s executive director, Kevin Washo, followed by $220,000 for the chief financial officer, Jason O’Malley, with the rest receiving between $13,000 and $58,000 each.

“There were never any bonuses included in any budget for the host committee that I ever saw,” Cohen said. 

Rendell, who served as the host committee’s chairman, said Cohen was kept "at arm's length" on purpose because of his position at Comcast, which was the largest vendor working with the host committee. 

"Obviously he couldn't be involved in spending decisions, because it would've been a conflict," Rendell said Friday. Comcast donated $5.1 million in in-kind services, which included personnel, telecommunications, hospitality and events, and $500,000 cash, the host committee reported in September. 

Rendell said Cohen "wasn't privy to conversations" he had with host committee staff when they were hired. He said they were told there would be bonuses if there was money left in the end. The staff’s monthly salaries ranged from $3,000 for the office manager to $13,000 for Washo. Some, including Washo, continued to be paid months after the convention and months after starting other full-time jobs. 

The host committee was charged with fund-raising and organizing the events surrounding the convention, held from July 25 to 28. It wasn't until September, when the committee filed its financial reports with the Federal Election Commission, that it reported exceeding its fund-raising goal.  

The committee used its surplus to pay the city more than $500,000 for municipal services incurred during the convention, distribute $1.2 million in grants to local nonprofits, and provide the nearly $1 million in bonuses. 

Washo, who also served as the committee's treasurer, previously said that the decision to hand out bonuses to the staff was made by himself, chief operating officer Eliza Rose, and Rendell.

Washo and Rendell have defended the bonuses by saying the staff worked very hard for what Rendell has described as “low pay.” 

Cohen disagreed with the notion that the staff was not paid well.

“I would’ve had serious concerns over bonuses, particularly bonuses of that size, and particularly of well-compensated employees of a nonprofit organization,” Cohen said.

Cohen questioned the “propriety” of such bonuses when “100 percent of the funding was being provided by donors and by the state.”

Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, and state Republicans have criticized the bonuses and called for an audit of the $10 million grant the state gave the host committee. The state’s grant was the largest single donation received. On Thursday, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said he would audit the $10 million state grant. 

Cohen said he has been fielding calls from donors complaining about the bonuses, but he declined to identify them other than to describe them as “many people who are asking how or why this was done.”

Rendell said he had received no complaints from donors. He added that if donors were upset, he would be the one to get the calls. 

"I raised the lion's share of the money," Rendell said.