Commentary on Political Corruption
David Thornburgh, President and CEO, Committee of Seventy
Published in the Philadelphia Inquirer August 10, 2015
(Note: this was the piece as written; an edited version appeared in the Inquirer)
Last week's 29 count indictment of Congressman Chaka Fattah on charges of bribery, racketeering, money laundering, bank fraud, mail and wire fraud, and filing false statements reminded the people of Philadelphia that a corrupt and corroded political culture still lies beneath the surface of Philadelphia's well-recognized renaissance. As the case against Fattah proceeds, Philadelphians are faced with a familiar choice: shrug at public corruption as common practice and a cost of doing business in the city, or assert that our standards have changed, and that we expect more from our leaders and our political system.
Public corruption is not a victimless crime: it turns citizens off to the democratic process, lowers expectations for a responsive and effective government, and unfairly casts doubt about the integrity of all public officials. It also, dangerously, leads to a closed system with entrenched elected leaders who think the status quo is acceptable, stifling public policy innovation. It's also particularly infuriating in our impoverished city, as every time a public official steers a dollar to serve his or her interest rather than ours, it's one less dollar that could help educate a kid, or keep a neighborhood safe, or help a neighbor struggling with substance abuse.
Unfortunately, we sometimes treat public corruption as a local joke, perhaps not realizing it's an inside joke whose humor is lost on the rest of world. As Philadelphia's visibility on the world's stage increases, yet another charge of corruption sends a signal that its closed, parochial system that protects those who play the game and repels everyone else remains intact. This matters because we depend on the rest of the world to create opportunities (for investment, jobs, people, and education) that are critical to our future-a future that needs to face the reality that Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the United States.
What's most frustrating and outrageous about these latest charges is that we've been on a roll the last few years when considering ethics the city government. The city's campaign contribution limits and disclosure requirements implemented after the Pay-to- Play scandals of 2003-2004 have worked. Unfortunately, thanks to the Citizens United decision, they haven't kept money-the "mother's milk" of politics-out of local elections. But they have accomplished what they were intended to accomplish: breaking (or at least fraying) the tie between city contracts and campaign contributions and making it illegal to write big checks directly to campaigns. Big money in direct pursuit of big contracts is a thing of the past, but more remains to be done.
At the city level, the Committee of Seventy has called to make the Office of Inspector General a permanent part of city government, not just subject to the whim of any particular Mayor. We've also endorsed the idea that the City's Chief Integrity Officer, a position created by Mayor Nutter to help city employees steer clear of violations, should be carried on by the next Mayor, and both party nominees support this. But more and better laws are not alone sufficient to change the way we operate and restore confidence in government from our citizens. It's about changing our culture, our shared expectations and unwritten rules about what's acceptable behavior and what's not. Let's admit that culture is hard to change. As Peter Drucker, one of the most influential management gurus of the last century, put it "culture eats strategy for breakfast". Or as the Eagles' Chip Kelly puts it "culture beats scheme every day".
This means we must let our leaders know we're serious and we're paying attention. First, as the folks at Amtrak encourage us, if you see something, say something. Use your voice-at the ballot box, in public forums, in all the many ways that we can now reach each other and our communities-to send a message that you won't support, won't respect, won't vote for, public officials who put their interests above our own. Tell your friends to do the same, and ask them to tell their friends, use your networks to be a leader. Today's communications tools make this easier than ever.
Second, in order to change the culture, we must change the game. This means offering voters better choices by making it easier for qualified candidates to enter races and reach voters. This also means exploring ways of increasing participation: online voter registration, non-partisan primaries and other methods to bring more people into the electoral process. Seventy plans to take these challenges on in the coming year, with hopes of breaking the debilitating cycle of cynicism and frustration that has enabled our tolerance of poor ethics and lackluster leadership.
Only when we all expect more, when we reward men and women who work to improve our communities, and punish those whose selfish and self-serving behavior tells us they forget why we elected them to serve, will Philadelphia become the city we need and deserve.