A congressman caught in the 1970s Abscam sting is now at the heart of a Philly election fraud probe, sources say
Prosecutors have declined to identify the political consultant they say paid bribes to influence votes. But sources briefed on the matter and an Inquirer analysis of campaign finance data and court filings in DeMuro’s case point to one man: former Congressman Michael “Ozzie” Myers.
A central question lingered after federal authorities last week disclosed that a South Philadelphia poll worker had admitted taking bribes to stuff ballot boxes in local elections:
Who was the unnamed campaign “Consultant #1” described in court filings as the man who paid Domenick DeMuro, 73, to inflate vote totals on behalf of favored candidates between 2014 and 2016?
Prosecutors have declined to say. But two sources briefed on the matter and an Inquirer analysis of campaign finance data and court filings in DeMuro’s case point to one man: former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers.
A key figure in the Abscam scandal of the 1970s, Myers represented Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District between 1976 and 1980 — a career that ended with a three-year prison sentence for bribery and a vote by his House colleagues to expel him. He is best known, though, for one of the most enduring lines to emerge from that sting operation, which involved undercover FBI agents posing as representatives of an Arab sheikh offering bribes in exchange for political favors.
“Money talks in this business and bullshit walks,” he told the agents on an 1979 FBI recording as he accepted a $50,000 bribe.
Since then, Myers, 77, has transitioned to political consulting work and has become one of a handful of must-hire operatives for candidates eyeing runs in Philadelphia judicial races. Federal prosecutors previously sought information on his ties to Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, according to search warrants from the 2016 investigation that ultimately led to charges against labor leader John J. Dougherty.
As for whether he is the unnamed consultant who allegedly paid DeMuro bribes, the former congressman isn’t willing to discuss it. He did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him over the last week, and a man answering his phone has repeatedly hung up on reporters.
The two sources briefed on the matter independently confirmed to The Inquirer that Myers was the consultant described in the DeMuro case. Neither had been authorized to discuss it publicly and both spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Details from government court filings bolster their account.
In documents unsealed last week that disclosed DeMuro’s previously secret guilty plea, prosecutors described Consultant #1 as a “former elected official” who “exercised influence and control in Philadelphia’s 39th Ward,” and who had supported family members and friends for elected office, including as ward leaders.
They contend he sought to influence at least three elections in the 39th Ward’s 36th Division — an area east of Broad Street stretching from Oregon Avenue in the north to the Schuylkill Expressway in the south, and bordered to the east by 12th Street — where DeMuro served as judge of elections.
Specifically, the documents allege that during the May 2015 Democratic primary, Consultant #1 paid DeMuro to fraudulently add votes for three candidates for Common Pleas Court who were his clients.
Finance records from that race list only nine political operatives who were paid for campaign consulting services by three or more judicial candidates that year. Only four of them have held elected positions before, including ward leader.
Of those, only Myers lives in the 39th Ward. He is also the only one who has relatives who have run for elected ward posts there. His brother, Matthew Myers, is the Democratic leader of Ward 39B; his nephew Jonathan “J.R.” Rowan holds the same position in Ward 39A, and ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 2018.
Across the city, operatives like Myers, who hold influence with ward leaders and committee people, can make the difference on whether a candidate in down-ballot races, like judicial elections, shows up on the sample ballots of endorsed candidates distributed at polling locations, his past clients said.
But most of the time, said David Thornburgh, president of the nonpartisan good-government group Committee of Seventy, candidates have little idea what ward-centric consultants like Myers are doing with their money. They can only trust that the operative is spending their campaign cash effectively and ethically.
“It’s not like there’s a Yelp for political consultants,” he said, adding that because they are not always steeped in the intricacies of ward politics, judicial candidates in particular “are like lambs to the slaughter.”
Still, some of Myers’ past clients said they were surprised to be told that he could be involved in the type of behavior described by prosecutors — among them Thomas Martin, one of seven judicial candidates who paid Myers a total of nearly $107,000 to work on their behalf in the 2015 primary.
“I would not have suspected that [he] would be involved,” said Martin, who lost the election that year and has since taken a sabbatical from practicing law.
Frank DiCicco, a former city councilman from South Philadelphia, said he’s known Myers for decades and worked with him when his son, Christian, unsuccessfully ran for Municipal Court that same year.
Myers advised the campaign on where its spending might have the most impact and which ward leaders might be most helpful in getting out the vote.
“He was always up front with me,” DiCicco said.
Prosecutors have declined to say whether they intend to charge Consultant #1 with a crime. But records filed with DeMuro’s guilty plea in March indicate he had been cooperating with investigators since the FBI confronted him in October 2016.
Among the evidence supporting DeMuro’s plea, they cited “recordings of [his] conversations with Consultant #1 heading into the 2016 general election and the 2017 election cycle regarding ‘ringing up’ votes in the past and plans to ‘ring up’ votes in the future.”
Since DeMuro’s plea, the Republican National Committee and President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign have pointed to his conduct to bolster their claims of Democratic-backed voter fraud.
And there are signs the scope of the probe could extend beyond DeMuro’s ward and division.
It was just one of several flagged by Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt in recent years after the number of votes cast on voting machines exceeded the number of voters who signed into the registers at polling places on Election Day.
“Starting in 2012, my office started doing a post-election audit, where we would compare the number of votes on the voting machine to the number of voters who signed the poll book,” he said. “What you’ll find is many, many discrepancies … That doesn’t necessarily mean people in all those places are crooked. It simply means that these numbers are significant and it would be worthwhile to take a look.”
Schmidt said he alerted both local and federal investigators after DeMuro’s division began showing up consistently on his lists year after year.
During one of those elections in 2014, DeMuro was running for a spot as a Democratic state committee member, and roughly 10 ballots cast on the machines from his division skipped all of the top-of-the race tickets, including that year’s competitive gubernatorial contest, to vote only for DeMuro in the committee race, Schmidt said.
“How many people only vote in one down-ballot race?” Schmidt asked.
Staff writer Julie Shaw contributed to this article.