Good government spans a broad spectrum: at one end, we have a right to expect ethical behavior from government employees and officials, and for government entities to handle taxpayer money responsibly.
At the other end, we expect government officials and employees to refrain from criminal activity, especially when it involves our money.
Philadelphia has made strides in the past decade in how it watchdogs agencies and officials to identify unethical behavior, as well as fraud, waste, and abuse. We’ve certainly evolved from the days of being “all ethic’d out” — the famous words of former City Councilmember Jannie Blackwell in response to then-Mayor Michael Nutter’s attempt to institute more ethics safeguards into the system.
But recent and not so recent events — two councilmembers currently under indictment, and jail sentences for a former sheriff and a district attorney — suggest that there’s still plenty of work to do. With recent resignations of Inspector General Amy Kurland and the city’s chief integrity officer Ellen Kaplan, there is also a moment to assess the larger landscape of the city’s oversight of ethics and responsible spending.
One important change is obvious: the Inspector General’s Office — first created in 1984 under Mayor Wilson Goode and whose mission is to root out corruption, fraud, and misconduct in city government — should be made permanent and independent. It now exists under an executive order, meaning its very existence depends on the pleasure of the mayor. In four years, it could disappear. More importantly, it now only has jurisdiction over the executive branch. Now is the moment to broaden that to include all of city government. That change is up to City Council to make — a move Council has resisted in the past. It’s hard to imagine a plausible excuse for Council to not take this seriously now.
The City Controller’s Office has stepped in on more strongly policing fraud waste and abuse beyond the executive branch. While that allows us to sleep better at night, clarifying jurisdictions could help everyone, including city employees.
Meanwhile, thanks to a debacle at the state level, the conversation about good government should also include how investigations into fraud, waste, and abuse are conducted.
According to Spotlight PA reporting, the Office of State Inspector General purchased nearly $160,000 worth of guns, ammunition, and related equipment following a 2017 state law that expanded the office’s authority to include issuing subpoenas and search warrants. But that law does not allow investigators to carry firearms. As a result, the guns have been in storage for over a year.
The debacle raises a number of questions, among them: How did the office spend $160,000 without any legal vetting that would have prevented the purchase? Why didn’t the state return them, or direct them to a different law enforcement agency? And why don’t the many press releases featured on the OSIG website include one informing the public about its own costly error and plans for correcting it?