This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Claudia Vargas reported that Mayor Jim Kenney has a habit of deleting all his text messages. And because he uses his personal phone, not a city-issued phone, to conduct city business, that means that three years of public records on the way Philadelphia has been governed are gone. Kenney’s office says there is nothing nefarious about the mayor’s behavior — he just doesn’t have enough memory on his phone so he deletes texts. They further defended Kenney’s actions by calling him “old school.”
Sorry, but those actions are more “old fool” than “old school.” This, after all, is the media-savvy mayor we’re talking about, not some Luddite who insists on using a typewriter or land line. So why is he using his personal phone? Apparently he doesn’t want the nuisance of carrying two phones. But he should know better.
By deleting texts, Kenney might have violated the state’s Right-to-Know Law that allows anyone to request any communication of public officials that pertains to city business. Experts, such as Alex Abdo, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, say that elected officials using personal electronic devices to conduct city business is not unique to Philadelphia.
However, this is emblematic of the perils of politics in which the lines between the person holding the office and the office itself begin to disappear. Best case, that becomes problematic. Worst case, it becomes criminal.
Take, for example, former District Attorney Seth Williams, who is serving a federal prison sentence because he didn’t understand that the DA’s office is not for him to use to score family vacations in the Caribbean. Similarly, former U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah is in prison because he thought he could leverage his access to the White House to settle personal debts. Most recently, Councilman Bobby Henon was indicted by federal prosecutors because he allegedly failed to draw a line between Henon the Councilman and Henon the “electrician” at Local 98. Last year, Congressman Pat Meehan was exposed for using taxpayer dollars to secretly settle a sexual harassment claim made by a former staffer.
The common theme in all of these incidents is that the line between the powers, duties, and protections of an office and the person holding that office were erased.
The news that Kenney uses his personal phone instead of email or a government-issued phone for official business does not hint that he is corrupt. It does suggest that he needs to draw a bolder line between himself and his office. (And pay more attention to Hillary Clinton.)
Why isn’t there a law that requires all city-related communication to happen on city-issue electronic devices that undergo periodic archiving? City Council should move on this immediately.
We should not be learning about corruption only when there is enough for federal prosecutors to bring forth an indictment. We need cultural change in the city — and beyond — that recognizes the warning signs for potential lapses. That starts with as much daylight as possible, including daylight between the official and personal — even on small things like on which phone to make dinner plans.