3 reforms to prevent another Bobby Henon-Johnny Doc debacle | Opinion
The corruption exposed by the bribery conviction of a city councilmember and a top union leader is part of a culture of conflicts that must be stopped.
This week, as IBEW Local 98 business manager John Dougherty and Councilmember Bobby Henon were convicted on federal corruption charges, Philadelphians got an in-depth lesson on the inner workings of Philadelphia politics and the corruption it sows in our government.
The brand of politics exposed by this trial unfortunately isn’t limited only to Dougherty and Henon. It is part of a highly transactional — and, at times, vicious — culture that must be rejected if our elected officials hope to deliver a good quality of life for all Philadelphians. All of us — public officials, civic and community leaders, unions, and businesses — must be committed to making real change by enforcing the current rules, passing new reforms, and protecting norms for appropriate behavior.
In the wake of the last massive City Hall scandal in the early 2000s, a wave of reforms followed, including restrictions on pay-to-play contracting, campaign finance limits, lobbying disclosure, and ethics oversight. But as this trial made clear, glaring vulnerabilities remain. To move forward, Philadelphia and Pennsylvania should start with reforms in three key areas.
Move to public financing of elections: The trial showed that Henon was dependent on his relationship with Dougherty for campaign money. Candidates dependent on big checks to win and keep public office will always be prone to doing the bidding of special interests instead of their constituents.
In 2018, New York City voters approved a ballot referendum to create a matching funds program in an effort to empower residents and limit the power of special interests in elections. The program matches small-dollar contributions from city residents to amplify the voices of New Yorkers in city elections.
This program may not be a perfect fit for our city, but every option should be on the table to mitigate the influence of super PACs and unlimited spending in our local elections that inevitably influence the decision-making of public officials. Instead of moving directly for the consideration of a City Charter amendment to create such a public-financing program, City Council could begin by putting a nonbinding referendum to the voters asking whether this is a reform they want to pursue.
Eliminate dark money in politics: Dougherty and others are able to dominate government action because super PACs can deploy unlimited funds to influence political races, so long as their expenditures are uncoordinated with a candidate’s campaign. Oftentimes, the sources of this money are unknown because contributions can be shielded from public scrutiny through shell games with nonprofits or other entities. This must stop now. While the Supreme Court has blocked limits on super PACs and their independent expenditures, city and state campaign finance law should be tightened to require more frequent reporting and to restrict the options to hide the sources and uses of campaign money. In this day and age, such information should be available online and in near-real time so that journalists, good-government advocates, and voters can hold public officials accountable.
Restrict outside employment: The trial showed that Henon’s job with IBEW Local 98 tied his interests to Dougherty’s. We need to limit the impact that outside employment has on policy decisions by requiring that both city and state ethics laws be more stringent. Elected officials should be required to report on all outside jobs, and ethics policies should broaden conflict of interest triggers. If politicians are allowed any type of private employment, the public must have a full view: What is the nature of the work, and how is time spent on it? Who else does the elected official report to other than the public? Only with such sunshine can the public and regulators know when politicians have an equity or other interest in a legislative outcome that crosses the line.
Our political culture and lax public-integrity laws in Philadelphia and Harrisburg have led to numerous city and state officials winding up behind bars. A slate of policies is not a panacea, and the sort of politics showcased in this trial will not disappear overnight. But over time, it can, when citizens demand and expect better from those who are elected to govern on our behalf.
Khalif Ali is the executive director of Common Cause. Jared Solomon is the state representative for Pennsylvania’s 202nd District. David Thornburgh is president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy.