The only surprising thing about the recent indictment of Philadelphia district attorney Seth Williams was how careless he was about selling his office. The prosecutor, who pleaded not guilty to 23 federal counts related to influence peddling, was allegedly so brazen and comfortable in his scheming that he conducted business over text message. "I am merely a thankful beggar and don't want to overstep my bounds in asking," he wrote to an associate in regards to a lavish Caribbean getaway.
"In the future always give me at least a week to help a friend...I have no problem looking into anything," he messaged one donor seeking a favor. "I never want to feel like a drag on your wallet," he wrote another crony, "but we are ALWAYS ready for an adventure."
Williams, accused of providing official favors in exchange for vacations, meals, a watch, cash, a car, a couch, and a tie (he's a very cheap bribe), is only the most recent Philadelphia public official facing charges in the city's notorious politics-to-prison pipeline. We may soon add him to a raft of judges, state representatives, and a congressman convicted of disgracing their offices in the last few years alone. To enumerate every local leader beset with investigation or indictment would be an Infinite Jest–length read. Move over, Chicago. Back of the line, Detroit. Be easy, Big Easy. This is Philly: machine politics, pay to play, and blatant nepotism are the norm in this jawn.
What breeds such relentless corruption in the City of Brotherly Love? Is it something in the Schuylkill River? Are we gluttons for watching our political leadership degrade itself over and over? A spokesperson for Williams, who has yet to be convicted of any crimes, declined to offer insight into our collective municipal depravity.
But almost certainly, voter indifference is one of the culprits. "The oil that greases the wheels of the Philadelphia political machine is apathy," says Larry West, a prominent civic gadfly who ran an outsider campaign for mayor in 2007. "Ask anyone in Philadelphia how they feel about their local politician, and you're likely to hear that they either don't care, don't do anything, or are horribly corrupt."
The city's whole damn traffic court was abolished last year, too, after nine judges were charged and seven were convicted of various crimes.
It shows up in the polls. Voter turnout hovers in the 20 to 30 percent range in non-presidential elections. That's just under average for most large cities, though it dipped to an abysmal 5 percent in a special election held just last week to replace a rep who'd resigned for money laundering (the special election itself is being probed for possible irregularities and fraud). Numbed by decades of graft, residents are hardly shocked when another scandal breaks. Garden-variety nepotism like a city commissioner employing her daughter as chief deputy barely raises an eyebrow.
So corruption grows in Philadelphia, and grows some more. A large chunk of the city's former delegation of state representatives was taped accepting small-time bribes worth a few thousands dollars each a few years back. We lost an 11-term congressman, Chakah Fattah, last year when he was found guilty of racketeering. It qualifies as a minor miracle that the city hasn't sent a councilperson to prison in over a decade.
At least Philly has judges, who we rely on for their integrity and fairness—and their willingness to fix cases for friends, if the two removed from the bench last year alone are any indication. The city's whole damn traffic court was abolished last year, too, after nine judges were charged and seven were convicted of various crimes. In the most explosive case, Judge Willie Singletary secured his illustrious legacy by showing a photo of the "judicial penis" to a subordinate at court.
The city can't exactly look to the state for inspiration. Former attorney general Kathleen Kane was convicted of charges related to leaking grand jury material last year. She didn't go without a fight, bringing down two State Supreme Court justices with her for their involvement in a racist, sexist pornography-sharing ring, not a crime but an embarrassing reminder that some Philly officials can't even perform simple tasks without sullying them in some way.
Another problem driving Philly's corruption is that the Democratic Party is effectively unchallenged in local politics, holding a nearly seven-to-one voter registration edge over Republicans. The only citywide offices won by Republicans are those reserved by law for the minority party, so Democratic incumbents are free to practice unrestrained vice and avarice and still cruise to reelection. "Philadelphia, like a lot of big cities, has swung rapidly toward a very uncompetitive system," says David Thornburgh, president and CEO of local political watchdog group Committee of Seventy. "That one party dominance breeds complacency and, you can say, laziness."
On the other hand, Republicans aren't exactly clean of the pervading Philadelphia stench. The Philadelphia Parking Authority is a notorious Republican-controlled patronage mill, employing dozens of political operatives and their family members. Just last year, longtime executive director Vince Fenerty resigned with a giant golden parachute after multiple sexual harassment allegations came to light.
Pols who parade themselves as reformers inevitably disappoint. Williams was one of them. And his pal former Mayor Michael Nutter honed a squeaky-clean image as an ethics nut but is currently taking heat over what critics allege was a mayoral slush fund raided by close associates.
Increasingly, Philadelphia is a machine city where the machine barely functions. "Parties back in the day exercised discipline over their candidates," Thornburgh says. "Those ties have frayed because parties are not what they once were. The machinery is old and creaky and gray."
A fresh wave of outsiders could be the city's only hope, but first they have to break through the institutional inertia. "It certainly feels like Philly is a city that has rewarded folks who are well connected," says Rebekah Gable, president of Young Involved Philadelphia, a group that assists people seeking to become more politically engaged. "The biggest barrier is not feeling like you would have the support or resources to even have a chance."
A wave of activism following the presidential elections and a progressive bent to the 2017 district attorney race hint at a speck of hope in the future. In the meantime, we're still dealing with politicians like Williams, who took turpitude to such extreme levels that he allegedly pocketed more than $20,000 earmarked for his mother's nursing home care.
Maybe Robert Archie, the former School Reform Commission chair who resigned in 2011 after he was caught up in his own scandal, put it best. "Philadelphia does not operate by the usual rules," he said to a charter school operator seeking a contract. "Things are different here."
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