It’s a simple and obvious fact that red flags should rise and alarm bells should ring when a public agency tries to discourage an audit of its operations.
Especially when that agency is the Philadelphia Parking Authority and that audit possibility follows questions on its finances and on the resignation of its executive director over sexual harassment scandals. In 2016, following questions about PPA’s shortchanging of city schools funding, City Council mysteriously stalled a vote that would request the city controller to conduct an audit; three months later, after the PPA’s executive director Vincent J. Fenerty Jr. resigned over two sexual harassment scandals badly manhandled by the PPA board, City Council again mysteriously failed to support an audit.
That mystery may have been solved this week, when the Inquirer reported that in the indictment released last week of IBEW 98 boss John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty and City Council member Bobby Henon were allegations that the chairman of the PPA board, Joseph Ashdale, bribed Henon to kill the audit. Ashdale was not named in the indictment, but the Inquirer confirmed with sources that it was he who, feds say, provided a $3,000 window installation for a friend of Henon’s in exchange for making sure the audit was killed.
That bribery allegation will be for the feds to prove. The FBI allegedly caught Ashdale saying that whoever on Council votes for an audit “is not going to get a f — job out of here or a f — penny out of” PPA. It’s hard to know what’s more appalling: that a large agency would make threats to protect itself from scrutiny, or that those threats actually worked on lawmakers.
Then again, none of this should be that surprising. In the Fenerty affair, the board not only first allowed him to keep his job after initial allegations of bad behavior, but then admitted that they “forgot” an earlier sexual harassment claim involving the PPA chief. When he finally did resign — the board didn’t manage to fire him — he got a payout of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
How does a board chair keep his job after that?
The following year, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale managed to conduct both a management and financial audit of the agency in coordination with the Attorney General’s office, and found huge problems — in lax employment policy and procedures that allowed “an unchecked tyrant” to harass staff, and sloppy financial controls. DePasquale claimed the board acted like “an absentee landlord when it comes to managing" the PPA.
City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart is currently auditing on-street parking enforcement operations of the PPA. (Ironically, the controller doesn’t need a City Council resolution to embark on an audit.)
Clearly, the PPA needs a major house cleaning, starting with its board chair. Governor Wolf has the ability to add or remove board members and should take the first step. But it shouldn’t end there. The state-controlled PPA has proven itself to be an embarrassment, and it should be dismantled and returned to city control, though we wish we were more confident that such a move would clean it up for good.