In January 2017, Joseph E. Smith applied for a job as a part-time security officer at the Philadelphia Parking Authority.
Alongside descriptions of his employment and educational history, Smith, then a 58-year-old former steelworker from Northeast Philadelphia, checked a box that asked applicants about any relatives who worked at the PPA. He wrote in the name of his brother-in-law: “Joseph Ashdale.”
For 18 years, Ashdale has served as the chairman of the board of the parking authority, ostensibly the most powerful post in one of the city’s best-known agencies. As the entity that sets parking regulations, licenses and regulates cabs, issues fines, and manages thousands of street and garage spaces citywide, it has been the bane of countless Philadelphians and visitors.
But its $253 million budget and more than 1,000 jobs — along with being the rare Republican-controlled agency in a city dominated by Democrats — ensures it’s also something else: one of the last protected patronage dens, a place where connections determine jobs.
A review by The Inquirer suggests that under Ashdale, a union official from Northeast Philadelphia, it has also been a family affair: During his tenure, the PPA has employed at least 10 of his relatives.
Few got jobs that demanded particular expertise or experience; several, including his son and two daughters, were hired as interns or part-time assistants with no benefits, records show. And the pay wasn’t always eye-popping. Smith, the security worker, started at barely $14 an hour.
But another Ashdale relative, his niece, saw her salary jump 75% in six years, to $129,000, PPA data show. The PPA also gave her $41,850 to pay for college and law school, a few years before the board imposed a $35,000 lifetime cap on the agency’s tuition reimbursement program.
The issue of nepotism in government isn’t new. Pennsylvania’s state auditor two years ago criticized the parking authority for a “secretive” hiring process that could foster nepotism. Philadelphia Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is also expected to touch on the issue in a report this fall after an inquiry into PPA’s expenses and patronage hires. And Ashdale’s willingness to trade jobs for political favors was laid bare in FBI tapes that are a cornerstone of the corruption indictment this year that has shaken City Council and organized labor in Philadelphia.
The PPA did not make Ashdale available for an interview. But the authority spokesperson, Marty O’Rourke, didn’t dispute that 10 relatives of the board chairman had been on the payroll. O’Rourke said more than 2,500 people have been hired during Ashdale’s tenure, and said the chairman “and many others have referred individuals to be considered for employment.”
“At no time was he involved in making hiring decisions, evaluating their qualifications, assessing their performance, recommending them for promotion, nor setting the level of their compensation,” O’Rourke wrote in an email Wednesday. “Each was evaluated by others on their own skill set as related to the qualifications required for the position to be filled.”
“It’s ridiculous and it’s outrageous.”
Under state law, public officials are prohibited from using their authority for the “private pecuniary benefit” of their immediate family members — including involvement in hiring and promotions, according to the State Ethics Commission. The commission in the past has fined public officials and recommended prosecutions for violating the law, said executive director Robert Caruso.
Because the PPA is a state entity, its officials are not subject to the city’s nepotism rules, which tend to be more stringent.
Still, having so many members of an extended family on the same payroll is more than merely uncommon, said David Thornburgh, president of the good-government group Committee of Seventy.
“It’s ridiculous and it’s outrageous,” he said.
A powerful restaurant manager
Growing up in Northeast Philly, Ashdale graduated from Father Judge High School and developed a key political friendship through a job in an unlikely place: Pavio’s restaurant in the city’s Somerton section.
The maître d and banquet manager who hired him there was John Perzel, who would go on to become one of the most powerful Republican legislators in Harrisburg.
As House majority leader in 2001, Perzel engineered the Republican takeover of the PPA, a power grab that gave his party control of a majority of board seats for decades to come. At Perzel’s urging, then Gov. Tom Ridge, also a Republican, named Ashdale — whose resumé had included working as a laborer in the early 1980s when the Golden Nugget casino was being built in Atlantic City — as board chairman.
Within two years of the takeover, the PPA’s spending on salaries had more than doubled, as managers won big raises and the agency added nearly 300 jobs. The PPA also expanded its operations from ticket-writing and meter collection to running a red-light traffic program and managing parking at Philadelphia International Airport.
The PPA payroll would eventually double in size from its pre-takeover levels to more than 1,000 employees. Hundreds were non-civil service jobs, one reason the authority developed its reputation as a patronage haven, regardless of which party controlled it.
Now in his second 10-year term, Ashdale has managed to stay on as chairman despite a 2017 state audit that found the PPA board’s lack of oversight enabled former executive director Vince Fenerty to sexually harass employees without accountability and abuse his authority for personal gain.
Though it’s technically a part-time job, Ashdale earns a $75,000 annual salary as PPA chairman. (By comparison, SEPTA Chairman Pat Deon, who oversees a transit agency with 9,500 workers, is unpaid.)
Ashdale also collects a salary of $172,421 as business manager of Philadelphia-area District Council 21 of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, a post he ascended to after being head of Glaziers Local 252. The union represents 4,200 painters, drywall finishers, glass cutters and installers, and others in Delaware, South Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania.
Ashdale is also treasurer of the union’s PAC, which has spent nearly $500,000 on election-related expenses this year, records show. He’s known in political circles not as an ideologue but as a get-things-done operator who has helped elect members of both parties.
The political action committee donated to Philadelphians of both parties, including Democrats such as Mayor Jim Kenney and Republicans including Councilman Brian O’Neill and State Rep. Martina White.
‘Ashdale family tree’
The hiring of the board chairman’s relatives inside the agency hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some insiders quip about the “Ashdale family tree” that took root as early as 2002.
His brother, Martin, a union member, was hired that year, as was Ashdale’s niece Christine Kirlin, authority records show. His son, Joseph Ashdale Jr., held summer internships a few years.
Between 2003 and 2012, the PPA went on to hire Ashdale’s daughters Danielle and Patricia; nephews Sean Kirlin and Thomas J. Sinnott; and nieces Kerri and Kelly Kirlin. Their annual pay ranged from $13,000 for part-time work to about $41,000 full time.
At least four of the relatives filed job applications that didn’t specify the position they were seeking, according to The Inquirer’s review of the documents. None of the job openings appear to have been publicly posted; the PPA said it had no record of job postings for the positions.
Citing exemptions in the state’s Right to Know law, the agency declined to provide The Inquirer letters of recommendation that may have been written on behalf of Ashdale’s relatives. The authority also denied a request for the resumés of any unsuccessful applicants who applied for the jobs given to Ashdale’s relatives.
Some of his kin left their PPA jobs after a few years. Others have stayed and climbed the management or salary ladder. The chairman’s brother, Martin Ashdale, a manager in the department of facilities maintenance, saw his salary jump from $73,635 in 2012 to $96,658 last year, a 31% increase.
Christine Kirlin, his niece, started as an impoundment vehicle coordinator in 2002 but has since been elevated to senior roles in the department that regulates taxis and ride-hailing services like Uber. She became its director in 2017. Her salary increased from $73,650 in 2012 to $129,347 last year, a 75% increase.
O’Rourke, the PPA spokesperson, said the raises for Kirlin and Martin Ashdale were consistent with peers who had similar experience levels and strong performance.
Kirlin also benefited from a personnel policy that has since come under scrutiny. Over an eight-year period, the agency gave her nearly $42,000 to pay her undergraduate and graduate tuition, the PPA acknowledged. She graduated from Widener University Law School in 2013, according to her LinkedIn page.
Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a Democrat, said a review by his office found that the PPA board had changed its tuition reimbursement policy in 2012, removing what had been a $7,500 lifetime cap on how much money employees were entitled to collect. His probe found that 62 PPA employees received school reimbursement totaling $720,869 between April 2012 and May 2017, when the PPA imposed a $35,000 cap, and that the program indirectly diverted revenues that should go to Philadelphia’s public schools.
O’Rourke disputed the auditor general’s report, saying that agency administrators had regularly waived the $7,500 cap and that the 2012 vote had simply made minor changes to a 2007 policy. Ashdale and another board member abstained from the vote, O’Rourke said, but he denied the changes were “related to anyone’s anticipated tuition cost.”
The auditor general’s report also that found the parking authority had a “secretive” hiring process that could lead to nepotism and result in discrimination by not providing equal employment opportunities.
Amid that inquiry, the PPA board mandated that future job postings be made public and adopted a nepotism policy prohibiting board members and employees from participating or influencing the hiring or promotion of immediate family members.
The Republicans who dominate the legislature in Harrisburg have expressed little interest in returning the PPA to city control, but change may be coming. Ashdale’s 10-year term as chairman is up in 2021, as is another on the six-person board. At that point Gov. Tom Wolf could get to appoint a replacement from a list of at least three candidates submitted by the House speaker.
The spotlight might find Ashdale sooner than that.
His name surfaced earlier this year in the federal theft and bribery case unsealed against labor leader John J. Dougherty and City Councilman Bobby Henon.
According to the January indictment, Henon worked to kill a proposed city audit of PPA in exchange for Ashdale’s help in installing new windows at the home of Henon’s friend. (Henon’s lawyer acknowledges the councilman has known Ashdale for 25 years.)
Ashdale isn’t charged or identified by name in the indictment, but sources confirmed that he is “PPA Official No. 2” caught on a 2016 FBI wiretap demanding that Henon force Council to publicly vote on the audit. In the balance, he allegedly said, were jobs.
“I want [to] see who the f—’s going to” vote for it, he’s allegedly overheard telling Henon. “Because nobody [who does] is going to get a f—ing job out of there or a f—ing penny out of it."
Dougherty and Henon have pleaded not guilty and have vowed to fight the case. A trial date has not been set.
Staff writers William Bender, Jeremy Roebuck, and Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.