"If we have more information -- better information -- we can make better choices and build a better Philadelphia."
In showing former School District Superintendent Arlene Ackerman the door, Mayor Nutter and Philadelphia’s education leadership presented the departing administrator with a $905,000 buy-out. The generous payment to get rid of an official who was given a contract extension just months ago included $405,000 in funding raised from anonymous sources and laundered through a non-profit organization with close ties to the School District. After admitting that he made calls to solicit donors, Mayor Nutter defended the idea that the donors should remain anonymous. The Mayor should re-think his stance because this cozy deal is nothing short of pay-to-play and just one more sign that Philadelphia has far to go to overcome its “corrupt and contented” past.
For a city that never seems to think too deeply when it comes to solving its problems, it is amazing how creative Philadelphia’s leaders can be when they are trying to do something on the sly. Former State Senator Vincent Fumo is sitting in federal prison in part for using a non-profit organization to extort donations from firms seeking favorable legislation. Former City Hall insider Len Ross went to prison in part for his role in a scheme to use the ruse of selecting a developer for Penn’s Landing to extort campaign contributions. Now, we have anonymous donors and a friendly non-profit helping the Mayor out of a political jam.
The only thing anonymous that Philadelphia government needs is anonymous-anonymous – a 12-step program for public officials to enter into to kick the habit of finding new ways to allow generous individuals and firms to curry favor.
While the donors who contributed to the fund to help nudge Ackerman into retirement are anonymous to us, we can be absolutely sure that Mayor Nutter knows exactly which donors were solicited and exactly which individuals gave. We can also be absolutely certain that the donors and the Mayor all understand who owes whom a favor.
Had the Mayor made the case to the public that extending Ackerman’s contract had been a mistake and that the public should fund the buy-out, his call on the public to pay could have passed for leadership. Had the Mayor gathered generous Philadelphians in a room, made a pitch for funding, and walked out of the room leaving the individuals free to drop cash into a fishbowl, we could be reasonably sure that the donations were truly no-strings-attached and given freely. But, with the Mayor not talking about who gave, we can only imagine what future dealings will be influenced by this shady deal.
Perhaps a promised IRS investigation into this contribution-laundering effort will generate some more light and heat on this dubious episode. Maybe the threat of losing the tax benefits of the donations will cause donors to rethink their generosity or cause the Mayor to rethink his stance on anonymity.
At this point, we don’t even know how many favors the Mayor owes. Was it one, very generous individual who wrote a $405,000 check or a few corporations that each made $50,000 donations? Will the Mayor retaliate against donors who said “no?” Will generous Philadelphians live in fear that the Mayor will call them next to fund another scheme?
The Mayor and members of the Nutter Administration love to talk about how they run an open and transparent government, but this latest example proves that the openness and transparency are conditional and never consistent. The rule for the Nutterites is that anything is ethical if they say it is ethical. But, had former Mayor Street crafted a similar arrangement, then-Councilman Nutter would have climbed up upon the highest horse in Philadelphia to decry the shenanigans.
Simply put, being ethical is about more than just not soliciting bribes. It means not placing stumbling blocks before the blind and not cursing the deaf. We are blind in this case and the Mayor is telling us that there is nothing to see. We are deaf in this instance and the Mayor is telling us to stop listening.
The anonymous Ackerman donation scheme shows that Philadelphia needs to do more to end pay-to-play if we are to ever truly have an ethical, open, and transparent government. Until the Mayor and his anonymous enablers come clean, everything the Nutter Administration does in the future is suspect because we will not know if any special considerations or any favorable arrangements are moving ahead based on their merits or because the Mayor owes a favor.