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‘Glaring giant loophole’: Philly Council members have to report who pays them, but not their spouses

There is currently no proposal to add spousal income to the disclosure forms, but several members said they would support such a change.

Federal prosecutors have accused City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson of accepting a bribe in the form of consulting work for his wife.
Federal prosecutors have accused City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson of accepting a bribe in the form of consulting work for his wife.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Philadelphia City Council members next year will consider a bill designed to prevent special interests from purchasing influence on Council by employing lawmakers through side jobs outside of their official duties.

But there is another gap in the city’s ethics laws for those who might hope to secretly curry influence with Council members. Unlike lawmakers in other cities and states, as well as members of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, Philadelphia Council members are not required to disclose their spouses’ sources of income.

“Instead of giving favors or gifts directly to a candidate, there’s an opportunity to give those things to a person the elected official cares about,” said Khalif Ali, executive director of the good government group Common Cause PA. “That’s what I call a potential loophole.”

The issue of paying members’ spouses is expected to be central in the corruption trial early next year of Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson. Prosecutors have accused him of accepting a bribe in the form of charter school consulting work for his wife in exchange for helping a group in his district secure a zoning change.

The potential for Johnson to take official action to secure work for his wife also surfaced in the corruption trial this fall of Councilmember Bobby Henon. There, prosecutors played a 2016 recorded phone call in which Henon told former electricians union leader John J. Dougherty that Johnson may need a “little, like, hug” to get on board with Kenney’s tax on sugary beverages, which the union supported.

“Let him know that once you get this stuff, there’s gonna be a ton of major league jobs that his wife [is] more than qualified for,” Dougherty responded.

Henon and Dougherty were convicted.

» READ MORE: Philly City Council approved a plan to reshape an important board that decides the fate of proposed developments

Johnson, who declined to comment, goes to trial with his wife, Dawn Chavous, in February. They have pleaded not guilty and noted that Chavous has a long record of working on charter school issues.

Every year, Council members fill out two financial disclosure forms, one required by state law and another by the city Ethics Code. Top officials in recent mayoral administrations have also been required to complete a third form, established by executive order, that requires more information, including sources of income for spouses.

Mayors cannot require independently elected officials such as Council members to use the administration form, but Council could amend the Ethics Code to strengthen the reporting requirements for lawmakers.

The bill that Councilmember Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced after the Henon verdict — limiting lawmakers to $25,000 in income from other jobs each year — would also require members to disclose more details about their outside employment.

There is currently no proposal to add spousal income to the disclosure forms, but several members said they would support such a change.

At least 38 states have laws requiring lawmakers to disclose income sources for their spouses and, in many cases, dependent children, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Members of Congress are also subject to strict scrutiny of their household members’ financial activity, said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, government affairs manager at the Project on Government Oversight.

He called the lack of similar requirements on City Council “a pretty glaring giant loophole,” noting it’s also harder to track lawmakers’ interests at the municipal level “because you don’t have as many eyes and as many watchdogs.”

» READ MORE: John Dougherty and Bobby Henon found guilty at federal bribery trial, upending city politics and organized labor

Although Philadelphia and Pennsylvania do not require annual reporting of spousal income, laws regulating gifts to public officials and conflicts of interest can be triggered based on household members’ actions.

Johnson is the only Council member who has been accused of wrongdoing related to work given to a household member. But other members have spouses with jobs that have brushed up against Council’s work.

Councilmember Helen Gym, whose husband is an attorney for the pharmaceutical company AmerisourceBergen, voted against a 2019 bill opposed by drugmakers that would have regulated pharmaceutical sales representatives by having them register with the city and report their gifts to doctors.

Former Councilmember Bill Greenlee, who authored the bill in response to the city’s opioid crisis, said its defeat was the most crushing moment of his Council career. Greenlee said he never understood why it was opposed by Gym, a progressive usually eager to take on corporate interests.

Greenlee noted that the pharmaceutical industry lobbied heavily against it. He didn’t hear about Gym’s husband’s work in the pharmaceutical industry until after the bill went down in a 9-5 vote, although he said he wasn’t speculating the two were connected.

“She never really explained why she was against it,” he said. “I never understood why anybody was against it. It was a surprise.”

In a statement, Gym noted that only five members voted for the proposal and that she and others “had significant concerns about the bill,” including the Department of Public Health’s capacity to enforce it.

“I support a universal gift ban,” she said, “but I opposed the bill’s requirement that the Health Department use its resources to license every visiting sales agent and review all their sales materials.”

Gym said she supports requiring Council members to disclose their spouses’ income sources, as did Councilmember Isaiah Thomas, whose wife recently started working for Perry Media Group, a public relations firm whose clients include the Delaware River Port Authority and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.

“Any type of disclosure, limits on outside income — none of that stuff bothers me,” Thomas said in an interview. “Whatever steps we need to take to make sure the public has that trust as it relates to their elected officials, that’s what I’m in favor of.”

The most common concern with such a requirement is that public reporting on spouses’ employment could discourage people from public service for fear of putting their families under the microscope.

“Being a spouse of someone in public service is difficult enough,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, whose husband, Tómas Sánchez, is a Temple University executive who ran unsuccessfully for a state Senate seat in 2014.

Quiñones-Sánchez’s husband is currently working on a development project in her district, she said, and the couple have taken steps to ensure there is no conflict of interest with her work. Earlier in her Council career, she asked her husband to sell rental properties that were in his name in part to avoid ethical quandaries.

“We got rid of everything,” she said.