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To Wipe Out Corruption, Look to Philadelphia

The city went almost a decade without a single corruption scandal. What's its secret?

philadelphia district attorney seth williams
Former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams
In June, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges. Some see that as a good sign for the city’s political culture. 

Philadelphia has a long tradition of government officials being brought up on corruption or ethics charges. The “Philly shrug” is a local term referring to the grudging way in which residents have been willing to put up with malfeasance. Just in the past few years, numerous state legislators, Democratic officials and a congressman from the area have been convicted of crimes committed in their nominal line of duty. “It’s been going on for 30-plus years here,” says Neil Oxman, a political consultant in the city.

But Williams is the first city official convicted or even charged since 2008. What that shows is that the local culture has started to change. Following a pay-to-play scandal in the early 2000s, Philadelphia created an ethics board that actually has some teeth. In addition, the city inspector general’s office has been strengthened. Most people working in local government now have a firm sense of what’s allowed and what’s not. By and large, they’ve been staying out of trouble. “Tightening the regulations around what’s acceptable seems to make a difference,” says David Thornburgh, president of the Committee of Seventy, a consortium of local business and civic leaders. “Expectations are headed in the right direction.”

Things are different at the state level. Legislators can accept gifts as long as they say they won’t influence their decision-making. Free golf trip to Scotland? Politicians just have to say, “Had nothing to do with my vote.” The result has been a parade of lawmakers, including legislative leadership, who have gone to prison in recent years. In Philadelphia, by contrast, a $99 limit on gifts seems to have curbed most of the worst abuses. A near-decade without city corruption scandals may be more revealing than the fact that Williams got caught.

Under any system, rules are going to be broken. There’s nothing watchdogs can do beforehand if someone is determined to take illegal gifts or otherwise break the law. But city employees and officials now have the sense that someone is minding the store and they might not get away with putting their hands out for bribes. In Williams’ case, the ethics board fined him $62,000 for nondisclosure, which opened him up to federal charges. “Before we came around, there were some rules, but no enforcement and no consequences,” says Shane Creamer, the board’s executive director. That’s clearly changed. 

Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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