making local government more ethical

It Takes a Village: Behind the Indictment of Philadelphia's Vincent Fumo

Either the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania is the head of a vicious manhunt unknown since the days of J. Edgar Hoover, or Pennsylvania State Senator Vincent J. Fumo has not only failed to apologize for all that he has done, but he has, like so many unethical politicians before him, gone to the other extreme: denying every accusation and presenting himself as a victim. His speech to the State Senate ends with, 'Sometimes in life the only choice we have when we face blatant injustice is to have the courage to stand up and fight. That is what I will do, not just to protect myself, but to protect others from facing similar confrontations in the future, and to protect the good things that we can yet accomplish together.'

There's nothing to learn from this. Just more of the despicable same. But we can learn from, and discuss how to deal with, the way so many other people acted or failed to act in order to allow and support Fumo's unethical and illegal activities. Fumo is not a rotten apple. It takes a village to commit all the fraud and abuse of office Fumo is alleged to have committed.

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This village consists of the State Senate, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, the boards of the organizations Fumo served on and often controlled or dominated, the many staff members who took high pay to do work they knew was not allowed, members of the big law firm he worked for, people at, and who did business with, the bank he was president of, leaders of his community, city, and state, and who knows how many other politicians, professionals, businesspeople, and other people who aided, abetted, and accepted Fumo's activities. It takes an enormous environment that cares less about abuse of office and conflicts of interest than it does getting something out of them or at least accepting such activities as 'business as usual.' If you're curious about the extent of the alleged operations, take a look at the 272-page indictment.

This is a municipal ethics blog, so let's take, as an example of a member of Fumo's supporting village, the Philadelphia city council member who sat on the board of Fumo's nonprofit organization, the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods. Until the news media started to write about CABN's questionable activities, its board hardly ever met (if it met at all; the indictment isn't certain). Board members have an important oversight responsibility, especially when they have the extra fiduciary duty of being an elected representative.

If a board does not meet at least four times a year and take a serious look at the books, it is responsible for what happens. If you are on a board that just doesn't seem to get around to meeting, insist on it or quit right away. It isn't about people's busy schedules: something's going on.

Finally, when the proverbial fan was turned on high, the city council member left the board, saying he didn't even know who was the head of the organization. The council member's political mentor? No need to say. Loyalty is the principal culprit in the villages that make Fumos everything they are. Coincidentally, loyalty is also the principal value in organized crime.

But what about the other organizations that sought Fumo's participation on their boards? Places such as Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., Independence Blue Cross, Delaware River Port Authority, Philadelphia Board of City Trusts, Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, Philadelphia Maritime Museum, and Independence Seaport Museum? Why did they all want to associate with Fumo? Was it that he was Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee? No, he'd been in the minority party for years. Why is it that businesses, authorities, and nonprofits so often turn to politicians, even ones who are considered shady? Is political power really the same as the civic-mindedness such organizations use as the stated reason for choosing a political figure for their boards? Don't people realize that political power can mean the very opposite, even when (especially when?) a politician is spending enormous sums for civic projects? After all, it's not his money, but it is his power. Ah, the attractions of power, the cement that holds together the villages that make Fumos everything they are.

According to the indictment, Fumo's mantra was OPM: Other People's Money. Although very wealthy himself, he appears to have taken great joy and pride in dispensing others' money, however obtained. For instance, the indictment says that he arranged, as the settlement of a suit brought by himself partly as state senator, to have a fuel company give up to $17 million to the Citizens Alliance, so that he could get all the credit, and joy (and power), of handing it out.

In his speech, Fumo insists that he never voted in his own interest nor took a bribe. In fact, he didn't do most of the things that ethics codes proscribe. But he certainly acted in his own interest and, wherever possible, spent taxpayers' money on himself. He committed fraud and used people. He did enough to earn 141 counts on the indictment.

And yet he did a lot of good. Had he been ethical and legal in all his actions, he would have done far less good. This is, after all, what every crooked politician used to say, and there is truth to it. But how can these things be balanced? Is there any way to balance trust against local projects? If politicians feel they cannot do enough good (at least for their own constituents; to hell with others' constituents!) working within the rules, are the rules themselves good? Would it be best if instead of legal settlements with the state going to the state's coffers to be spent as it sees fit, powerful politicians instead took the money, fought over divvying it up, and spent it the way they thought best, because they know better? Why not have the whole state run that way? That would allow people like Fumo to do what they do without the need to commit fraud.

Which is wrong: the rules by which government business is officially done, or politicians doing it their way? If Fumo were the fighter he likes to think he is, he would argue publicly that he can spend money better than the state or the city, and that if some of it is spent fixing up his houses, etc., well, he deserves it for all the work he does for the people. Places such as Chicago and Louisiana have, in the past, accepted this view of government. But it is rare that someone like Fumo has that sort of courage of his convictions. Most unethical politicians are also lacking in moral courage. For them, it's all about getting away with it. Scheming. Controlling. It's about getting and using power. By hook and by crook.

Note: See my blog entry on ethical failures of leadership for a more detailed discussion of how important the support of others is to people such as Fumo.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics
rwechsler@cityethics.org