City's great ethics debate

Ten years ago, City Council shocked Philadelphia - and maybe itself - by overriding Mayor John Street's veto to enact campaign-finance reform, setting limits on donations and banning those who compete for big city contracts from contributing.

Ever since, City Hall has been wrapping itself ever-more-tightly in the best kind of red tape: rafts of regulations, laws, and executive orders clamping down on corruption and influence-peddling.

Here's a sampling: Lobbyist registration and disclosure. Mandatory ethics training. A new Board of Ethics, with an actual staff and some modest resources. A chief integrity officer. A vastly more powerful Inspector General's Office.

This hasn't been enough for a lot of reform advocates, and there's a good case to be made for more. Even so, what has been done is encouraging. The city's elected officials - most notably Mayor Nutter - have rightly recognized that Philadelphia's contented and corrupted image needs overtime ethics work.

However, there are signs that City Hall - or parts of it -is tiring of overcompensating for past sins.

The Board of Ethics has proposed new rules on gifts for city employees; the draft version says city workers can accept up to $50 in cash and non-cash gifts worth as much as $200 without running afoul of ethics regulations. City Council, meanwhile, is busily gutting a 1950s good-government reform called resign-to-run, which requires Philadelphia's elected officials to quit their day jobs before campaigning for, say, Congress or the Statehouse.

More consequential are the local implications of U.S. Supreme Court rulings on campaign finance, including the 2010 Citizens United decision and a pending case - McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission - that could strike down limits on contributions made to candidates.

Imagine a mayor's race where contributors can write checks of any size to their candidate of choice, just like the bad old days.

It's a chilling prospect in a city with a rich and storied pay-to-play culture. When combined with the reform rollbacks under way, and the prospect of a new mayoral administration less committed to clean government, it's hard to feel optimistic about the ethical climate in City Hall going forward.

Or is it?

When I talked with J. Shane Creamer Jr., the executive director of the city's Board of Ethics, he suggested that handwringing over these developments speaks to just how far Philadelphia has come.

Creamer notes, rightly, that these questions "are being discussed publicly and at a fairly sophisticated level." He doubts that the contretemps over gift policies kick up anywhere near as much dust and debate in other cities - another sign that Philadelphia is now deeply interested in ethical government.

And these questions are more complicated than they might initially appear. Resign to run, for instance, makes it less likely that city officeholders will risk running for statewide office, which arguably reduces Philadelphia's clout in Harrisburg. There's also the fact that most other cities have no resign-to-run requirement.

The gift limit debate is murkier still. City law prohibits gifts "of substantial economic value" to city employees and officials. But what does substantial mean? Creamer and the Board of Ethics - hardly pay-to-play apologists - have suggested the $200 annual limit, $50 if the gift is cash.

On its face, this appears to invite corruption. But Creamer and the board plainly mean to do the opposite. Drawing a bright line - be it $200, or some other amount - will strengthen the board's enforcement, Creamer contends. Besides, he argues, there is no such thing as an absolute ban on gifts. "It doesn't exist anywhere. Even policies that look like zero have significant exceptions for friends," Creamer says.

Sure enough, Nutter's executive order banning gifts to city employees that report to him - a rule that exempts Council and other offices, and can be undone by the next mayor - includes an exception for gifts from a "friend or relative."

That's a loophole, sure. But wouldn't a ban with loopholes be better than a policy that looks the other way when city workers are free to receive cash gifts or a meal at fancy restaurant?

"Others seem to think we're opening up this new age of petty bribes and shakedowns," says Creamer. "I think a very small number of people will do that, and I hope they're going to be found out and punished."

I hope so too.


Patrick Kerkstra is a freelance journalist and former Inquirer staff writer. Patrick@PatrickKerkstra.com @pkerkstra.