Ken Smukler’s conviction for violating campaign finance laws to help his boss – U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Phila.) – get reelected will be a footnote in the long line of Philadelphia political corruption cases. But the trial will be remembered for being the final note at the end of Brady’s undistinguished tenure in Congress and the window it provided into the sleazy way machine politics are too often conducted in Philly.
Smukler was convicted on 9 of 11 counts stemming in part for his role in a scheme to pay off Brady’s 2012 Democratic primary challenger to drop out of the race. During Smukler’s trial, multiple witnesses implicated Brady for his role in agreeing to help pay former Municipal Court Judge Jimmie Moore’s campaign debts in return for ending his campaign.
Indeed, prosecutors asserted in court filings that Brady struck a deal with Moore during a meeting brokered by former Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr. Brady denies any deal and prosecutors never charged the 11-term congressman and head of the city’s Democratic Party.
The federal prosecutor in the case shed some light on the government’s thinking after Smukler was convicted. “It wasn’t the underlying deal that was the problem here,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Gibson told reporters. “It was the cover-up afterwards.”
Enter Smukler, whose political consulting firm funneled $90,000 to Moore’s campaign, supposedly to pay for a poll and a political consultant who never performed any work, according to court testimony.
Some argued that paying an opponent to drop out of a race is routine politics. But such backroom deal-making stinks of ethical rot.
The fact that the Brady camp went to such extremes to sideline a longshot primary challenger underscores why all federal, state and city districts need to be competitive. It’s also a good case for term limits.
For 20 years, Brady was ensconced in a safe seat and rarely faced any serious election competition, allowing him to collect his annual congressional salary of $174,000 while managing his duties as the party boss.
Such arrangements undermine public trust in government and lead to voter apathy. Consider how the recent redrawing of the state’s congressional districts sparked scores of new, qualified, and often unconnected candidates brimming with fresh ideas and interested in public service to run for office this year.
Brady, 73, a ward leader, has been in Congress since 1998 and has been the head of Philadelphia’s Democratic Party since 1986. He’s one of the few members of Congress who is also a party boss. During Brady’s tenure as head of the party, scores of Philadelphia elected officials – including judges, state representatives, City Council members, a district attorney, and a fellow congressman – have been convicted of various corruption charges.
Ending gerrymandering, creating competitive primaries, and increasing voter turnout are central to a functioning democracy where elected officials place the public’s interest before their own. That would be the best outcome of this wretched trial.