Pennsylvania Democrats, no strangers to corruption, are surpassing their own dirty reputations as they prepare to host the Democratic National Convention this summer in Philadelphia.
There’s Rep. Chaka Fattah, an 11-term Democrat from Philadelphia whose trial opens Monday in federal court on charges of bribery, concealment of unlawful campaign contributions and theft of charitable and federal funds. Voters took the rare step in the Democratic primary last month of voting out Mr. Fattah, the longest-serving black congressman in Pennsylvania’s history.
Philadelphia lawyer/lobbyist John Estey, who served as chief of staff in the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, pleaded guilty last week to federal wire fraud in an FBI sting involving suspected bribery of state legislators. That probe seems sure to bring even more explosive corruption charges: Estey wore a wire for investigators, perhaps as long as five years.
There is speculation that Estey also helped federal authorities bring down state Treasurer Rob McCord, a Democrat who pleaded guilty last year to trying to extort $125,000 in campaign donations from two businesses during his failed bid for governor. McCord resigned the treasurer’s post. He, too, has secretly recorded conversations for the FBI but has yet to be sentenced.
In the past three years, The Philadelphia Inquirer noted, the list of city Democrats accused or convicted of corruption includes a congressman, a former sheriff, five state representatives, a state senator and eight judges. Other ongoing federal probes are reaching into Democrat-run city administrations in Allentown and Reading, Pennsylvania.
The wave of corruption cases, with more charges expected, comes as Democrats are gearing up in two months to host the giant party that will launch their presidential nominee, presumably Hillary Clinton, on to glory. Or something.
“It clearly is not going to help the Democratic candidate if in fact there’s a perception that you’re hosting your big event in a place that plays fast and loose with ethics and integrity,” said David Thornburgh, president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy, an independent watchdog and government reform group in Philadelphia. “I have real concerns. I don’t think we want this to be sort of the political story about Philadelphia and Pennsylvania that shows up during the DNC.”
In the Pennsylvania Senate’s 1st District, a Democratic bastion that includes the site of the party’s national convention, state senators have handed down their corrupt ways to the next generation as naturally as fathers teach sons to play catch.
The latest legislator to be ensnared is state Sen. Larry Farnese, a Democrat who was indicted last week on federal charges of providing a phony scholarship from campaign funds to benefit the daughter of a Democratic Party committeewoman and influence a ward election.
“I do think it’s endemic,” Jeff Jubelirer, a Republican consultant in Philadelphia, said of the rash of corruption cases. “There seems to be a bomb awaiting. Clearly, there is an uptick beyond normal. It doesn’t seem to have been this rampant in the past, and you’re talking about all levels of government. All Democrats. With Philadelphia as the centerpiece of a national audience, this will be played out as the corrupt and contented.”
Mr. Farnese, the third state senator in a row from the district to be indicted, maintains his innocence. He took over the state Senate seat from Vincent J. Fumo, a Democrat who was convicted by a federal jury in 2009 on 137 counts of fraud and other charges for ordering state employees to supervise construction of his mansion, spy on his ex-wife and work on his farm. He was accused of misusing $1 million in state funds. Fumo, a longtime ally of Mr. Rendell, was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Fumo, in turn, had taken over the state Senate seat from Henry “Buddy” Cianfrani, a Democrat convicted in 1977 of racketeering and mail fraud for putting two ghost employees on the Senate payroll to pad his salary. He served 27 months of a five-year federal prison sentence. After he was released, Philadelphia voters showed there were no hard feelings and elected Mr. Cianfrani as a ward leader.
Perhaps nobody exemplifies Pennsylvania Democrats’ troubles better than Philadelphia Commissioner Anthony Clark, the “Invisible Man.” He is an elected official who supervises the city’s $9 million bureaucracy, with 98 full-time employees and thousands of part-timers who staff polling places on Election Day, yet he rarely shows up to work at City Hall.
Mr. Clark, who is paid $138,612 per year and stands to gain a half-million-dollar city pension, has said he is always available by phone.
“When I was in Egypt, I was considered still present,” he once said.
Mr. Clark has not been charged with wrongdoing, although Rep. Robert A. Brady, a 10-term congressman who also chairs Philadelphia’s Democratic Committee and prizes public displays of party unity, has called him “a disgrace.”
Mr. Thornburgh said Philadelphia’s government is actually a relative bright spot in the state, with strict ethics laws, a chief integrity officer and an inspector general helping to improve the ethics climate in City Hall. But the City Council and the state legislature are not subject to the same rules.
“Oddly enough, maybe the rest of the commonwealth ought to be paying more attention to Philadelphia,” he said.
Aside from the prospect of formally nominating the Democratic presidential candidate in an ethics swamp, some observers believe the stench of Democratic corruption cases could have an impact on the pivotal U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent Patrick J. Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty. Democrats view the race as crucial in their drive to take back the Senate and believe Mr. Toomey is vulnerable in a state that has voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992.
Ms. McGinty, a former Environmental Protection Agency official in the Clinton administration and former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, hasn’t been touched by any investigations, but Republicans say the wave of corruption accusations in her party could impair her candidacy.
“This will play out and present itself especially in the U.S. Senate race, not because McGinty has done anything untoward, but because of the company she keeps,” Mr. Jubelirer said.
The FBI’s corruption investigations in eastern Pennsylvania have extended to Allentown and Reading, where Democratic consultant Michael Fleck has been charged in an alleged pay-to-play scheme. Mr. Fleck, a former City Council member in Easton, Pennsylvania, also has worn a wire for the FBI.
His arrest last year cut short the U.S. Senate bid of Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, a Democrat who employed Mr. Fleck as a consultant. The FBI has raided City Hall offices in Allentown and Reading; Mr. Pawlowski has not been charged with wrongdoing.