Asked what he did to earn a $10,000 consulting fee before the Democratic primary, Ronald Couser, leader of Germantown's 22nd Ward, had a succinct answer: "Give advice."
There was a lot of advice available for candidates running in the May 19 primary, but it didn't come cheap.
Couser was one of a dozen ward leaders and politicos who got paid for what was listed as "election consulting" in the campaign filings of Liberty Square PAC.
The list includes Councilwoman Marion Tasco, who is leader of the 50th Ward ($10,000) and state Rep. Steve Kinsey, whose district is in Northwest Philadelphia ($3,000).
In all, Liberty Square gave $90,000 to these ward leader/consultants in checks written two weeks before the primary.
These fees were separate and distinct from the money Liberty Square handed out to the ward organizations, which totaled $260,000. For instance, 10th Ward leader Isabella Fitzgerald got a $10,000 fee, and her ward got another $32,000 to finance its election operations.
Most ward leaders did not return phone calls and emails to answers questions about the fees. Couser, asked to elaborate in his duties, said he gave advice "on what was going on in the communities. This was an exceptional election."
Asked if he signed a contract that outlined his relationship and duties with Liberty Square, Couser said he had not. Asked if he filled out an IRS W-9 form, which independent contractors routinely submit, he replied: "I don't recall doing that."
While it may be tacky for ward leaders to get paid for doing what ward leaders are supposed to do, there is no law against it. The only requirement is that they report the income to the IRS and other taxing authorities and pay taxes on it.
Liberty Square PAC is a political action committee headed by Charles Finney, a political consultant with close ties to Tasco. It takes money from candidates -- this year nine of them gave the PAC $410,000 -- and hands it out mostly to a cluster of wards in the city's Northwest section.
Finney is well known in political circles and a "must-have" consultant, especially if you want to do well in the Northwest, which has a number of well-organized power wards. His firm, Square Group Inc., was paid $135,000 during the primary season. He did not return phone calls.
If you are a candidate, you end up paying a consultant (Finney) to earn the right to write a big check to the Liberty Square PAC which, in turn, gives some of the money to ward leader/consultants.
It does add up, even for those who are endorsed by Democratic City Committee. It used to be that if you got the endorsement from the City Committee, you paid it an "assessment" (today it is $35,000) to cover the cost of printing the party's official ballot and giving out street money to election workers. The rest of the costs were minimal — unless you decided to bolster your chances by giving money to individual wards.
This year, the city committee fee was just a starter. Most endorsed candidates also wrote checks to Liberty Square and to another ward PAC called Genesis IV, which cover about a dozen wards centered in West Philadelphia.
For instance, Chris Mallios, a party-endorsed candidate for Common Pleas Court, wrote a $35,000 check for Democratic City Committee, a $25,000 check to Genesis IV, a $20,000 check to Liberty Square PAC, a $10,000 check to Finney to work as a consultant, and an $8,000 check to Friends of the Northeast, another consortium of ward leaders.
No wonder candidates call the experience of running for judge as "writing check, after check, after check," not sure whether the money will yield results.
"In the last couple of weeks, people are hitting you up for money right and left," said one judicial candidate, who asked not to be named. "But by then, you're in it to win."
So, you write another check.
The West Philadelphia wards involved in Genesis IV did well in taking in contributions and gave $300,000 to 16 wards or their leaders. Genesis IV did not have any ward leader/consultants.
The PAC was founded by the late Councilwoman Carol Campbell, also leader of the Fourth Ward, and is headed today by her brother, Edgar "Sonny" Campbell Jr. Genesis IV is Campbell's PAC and, in a sense, his business. This year, he paid himself a $20,000 commission from PAC funds. When asked why, he replied: "Because I raised the money."
The group also is listed as paying $5,000 in rent for a campaign headquarters on North 59th Street in a building owned by Campbell.
"So, you are paying yourself rent?" Campbell was asked.
"Of course," he replied.
The hard-to-understand part is that Genesis IV only supported judicial candidates already endorsed by the party. The party gives these wards money for Election Day expenses. Why give them more since they support you already? One political consultant was asked if the money was given offensively -- to assure enthusiastic support from the wards -- or defensively -- to stop the wards from "cutting" a candidate from the sample ballot. "A little bit of both," he replied.
With so much money flowing back and forth perhaps it was inevitable some of it ended up in the couch cushions.
For instance, Genesis IV reported giving $9,500 to the 46th Ward, which is headed by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. The PAC report said it was sent to her home address.
The $9,500 does not show up in either Blackwell's ward PAC account or her Friends of Jannie Blackwell council PAC. Blackwell did not return a call seeking comment.
Pete Wilson, leader of West Philadelphia's Sixth Ward, got $5,000 in contributions that have yet to show up in the ward's campaign finance report. We were unable to reach Wilson to comment.
The Friends of the Northeast PAC reported giving a total of $5,700 to Harry Engasser, leader of Bridesburg’s 45th Ward. It was not listed in the ward's PAC, which is called PAC45. When contacted, Engasser said he had no recollection of getting that money from the PAC and said he would look into the matter.
Same case with Robert Dellavella, whose 55th Ward is listed as getting a $1,000 contribution from the Northeast Democrats Club. But it was not reported in either the 55th Ward report, nor the report filed by Philly United PAC, which is run by Dellavella.
Pete Lyde, leader of the East Oak Lane's 61st Ward, said he had no memory of the $2,000 in consulting fees listed as paid to him by Liberty Square PAC. Not only that, he added, he had never heard of the PAC, even though Lyde's ward got $13,000 from Liberty Square. In addition, Lyde made $31,000 serving as a consultant for six judicial candidates.
In all, the 51 judicial candidates spent $4 million in the primary. Only one party-endorsed candidate lost.
Chris McCabe was among the Common Pleas Court candidates who were not endorsed by the party. He spent $73,000 on what he called a "grassroots campaign" where he tried to reach voters through Facebook, a website and direct contact. He ran 32nd out of a field of 43 candidates.
In hindsight, he realizes it was a mistake to run that kind of campaign.
"The path to victory," McCabe said, "is the party endorsement and a good ballot position and a lot of money to spread around to ward leaders and consultants who can get you on as many ballots throughout the city as possible."
As long as that is the only path to election, the feeding frenzy will continue.
Staff reporters Ryan Briggs and Brian X. McCrone contributed reporting to this column.