Allegations of corruption are old hat for Philadelphia

Probe involving mayor fits long city tradition

December 08, 2003|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Until recently, Cynthia Harmon never thought much about who owned the airport Euro Cyber Cafe, where travelers stop on their way out Concourse D for coffee and pastries and maybe an e-mail check at the computer kiosk.

Now, suddenly, the little shop where she works as a cashier is under scrutiny as one of a number of lucrative airport businesses owned by people with connections to Philadelphia Mayor John Street, the subject of an FBI probe into municipal corruption.

"I was stunned," Harmon said from behind the counter last week, adding that she has never met the cafe's part-owner Aruby Odom-White, the wife of Philadelphia lawyer and Street fund-raiser Ronald A. White. "But people are not guilty until they're proven guilty. It doesn't bother me one way or the other, as long as I still have my job. It's been this way for years."

Philadelphians may profess to be startled by recent disclosures involving their mayor - the discovery of an FBI-planted bugging device in his office ceiling, the TV images of FBI agents seizing boxes of records from city offices, the ever-expanding list of city-controlled contracts awarded to a small number of people with close ties to Street.

On the other hand, people here are all too familiar with the so-called "pay-to-play" system in a city whose reputation for corruption stretches back at least 100 years, captured in print in 1903 by muckracking journalist Lincoln Steffens when he called it "the most corrupt and the most contented" city in the nation.

It is unclear how the current investigation involves Street, who has denied any wrongdoing. He has characterized the inquiry as part of a pattern of government persecution of black leaders and questioned its timing, suggesting a Republican plot to unseat him in last month's election.

Street was cozy enough with President Bush to sit in the first lady's box when the president gave his first State of the Union speech in 2001. But by portraying himself as a victim of a partisan conspiracy, the mayor elicited the sympathy of enough voters in the overwhelmingly Democratic city to handily defeat his opponent, Republican Sam Katz, a financier and one-time Johns Hopkins University basketball player. Before the bugging device was discovered, the two were running neck and neck in the polls.

Now beginning his second term, Street has stressed that he is a "subject" of the investigation, rather than "target," a term that comes from the target letters prosecutors send to persons under investigation when an indictment is imminent. "Subject" describes someone within the scope of a criminal inquiry, although that person might not be suspected of breaking the law.

But there is good reason to take the investigation seriously, said Dennis J. Cogan, a former Philadelphia prosecutor who is now one of the city's leading defense lawyers.

To get judicial approval to bug a mayor's office, federal authorities need to submit reams of documentation proving that it is more likely than not that a crime will be uncovered while listening to the conversations, Cogan said. Some of the information may have come from a bug on White's phone line for six to nine months, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported yesterday.

"I do know one thing, the mayor is a serious subject for this investigation," Cogan said. "Otherwise they probably wouldn't have gotten that far. The significance of this cannot possibly be overstated."

Philadelphia's bad rap has stuck all these years despite a reform movement in the early 1950s that ended the patronage appointments of city workers such as police and firefighters by instituting a civil service program.

Before the city charter was changed in 1951, machine politics, then dominated by the Republican Party, controlled the gas works, garbage collection and other major municipal services, said Frederick Voigt, executive director of the Committee of Seventy, an electoral watchdog group in Philadelphia.

The reforms led to significant improvements in the political culture and cut down on corruption, Voigt said.

Reform had limits

But the pay-to-play system lingered, largely because the city remained under the control of a single party. From the early 1950s on it was the Democrats who controlled political patronage.

And there were plenty of high-profile scandals that seemed to validate Steffens' phrase.

In the mid-1970s, the chairman of the state Senate Appropriations Committee, Henry J. "Buddy" Cianfrani, pleaded guilty to a number of schemes, among them extorting money for arranging coveted admissions to state graduate schools and putting "ghost" employees on his payroll. Once he was released from jail, he made a political comeback advising judicial candidates on how to get elected.

Cianfrani was notorious not only for his political machinations, but also for his many mistresses, who embroiled him in many scandals.

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