There are few — if any — members of Congress who started out like Rep. Pat Meehan of the Philadelphia suburbs, who got trained as a hockey ref by the NHL and spent three years punishing slashers and trippers in minor-league backwater arenas before he went back to school and earned his law degree. Since then, the Cheltenham native has forged a big-league political career for himself through his own brand of hockey-ref tough justice — and his specialty was handing down the game-misconduct penalty.
Just ask Corey Kemp, who was Philadelphia's ill-fated city treasurer in the early 2000s. Inexperienced and naive, Kemp got sucked into a vortex of political sharks — his mentor Ron White, who died before he could be prosecuted on multiple corruption charges, and his boss Mayor John Street, who somehow escaped without sanction — and did some really dumb and bad things, accepting freebies like a trip to the Super Bowl. Ensnared in a sweeping city corruption probe when Meehan, a Republican, was the Philadelphia U.S. attorney, Kemp was sentenced to a whopping 10 years for those offenses, a draconian penalty whose severity shocked even those — this writer included — who'd been thrilled to see the feds finally coming down on the corruption that was once endemic in City Hall.
But that was the Pat Meehan brand — unrelenting and harsh when it came to corruption in the public sphere. A few years later, Meehan voiced anger when former state Sen. Vince Fumo — another probe launched by his office — was only sentenced to 55 months. "If I'm a citizen and a taxpayer, I'm asking a question today: Where's the consistency in the justice?" Meehan asked the Daily News. That's why Meehan went after powerful pols, he told us — not to advance his own career but for all the little taxpayers out there in the dark.
"The creation of a culture of corruption is a disservice to the legions of honest public servants who work each day in municipal government, and mostly to the taxpayers, who turn over their hard-earned dollars in trust," Meehan declared on the day that Kemp was convicted. (Outraged emphasis mine.) And no one could argue that taking on graft in Philadelphia politics was long overdue. His success as a prosecutor propelled him to Congress in Pennsylvania's freakishly gerrymandered 7th Congressional District in 2010, with constant talk of higher office.
But here's the thing: A politician who lives by his ethics can die by his ethics.
Saturday's stunning report from the New York Times (co-written written by Philly-area native and diehard Eagles fan Kenneth P. Vogel) — that Meehan's office used thousands of taxpayer dollars to settle and thus keep quiet allegations by a young female former aide that Meehan had created a hostile work environment after she'd spurned his romantic advances — was like ripping the core Jenga block from the suddenly collapsing foundation of the congressman's career.
The scenario laid out in the article — thoroughly reported with key details confirmed by as many as 10 people with knowledge of the situation — raises serious questions about the judgment and morals of the congressman, who is a 62-year-old married father of three. The woman — not named in the article — was reported to be a family friend who had seen the older Meehan as "a father figure"; devastated by the experience and by an aggressive pushback from Meehan and his representatives, she left her job and more recently has left the country.
Meehan hasn't personally addressed the allegation, which seems to be par for the course for a congressman who also hasn't had a public town hall meeting in his district in years. His spokesman said he "denies the allegations," and certainly Meehan — like the many people he prosecuted over the years — is entitled to a defense.
But based on the Times' reporting, Meehan — like other congressmen before him — benefited from a secretive system of quasi-justice that is stacked toward protecting the powerful, keeping their misdeeds secret from the voting public, and sticking taxpayers with the bill. In working out a settlement with the young woman before the Office of Compliance in Congress, Meehan was backed up by four representatives, including two lawyers.
We don't know how many of our tax dollars were paid out because — incredibly — the process allows any payouts to be "disguised" as salary over a period of months. As Meehan was looking to run for a fifth term in November, voters wouldn't have known about any of this were it not for dogged journalism by Vogel and his co-author Katie Rogers. This set-up that has allowed members of Congress to get away with acts of sexual harassment or worse sure sounds a lot like, to borrow a phrase, "a culture of corruption" — with suckers like you and me paying for it.
Meanwhile, Meehan was also one of the GOP's chosen representatives on the House Ethics Committee, where he was tasked with investigating sexual misconduct by his colleagues in both parties like Reps. John Conyers and Blake Farenthold and never thought to disclose his own problems — and the potential conflict of interest.
This all comes, interestingly, in an age of Donald Trump that has raised all kinds of new questions about what it means to be an ethical member of Congress. Meehan professed during the 2016 campaign to be as repulsed by Trump's antics as many voters in the 7th District (which went narrowly for Hillary Clinton), claiming that he cast a write-in ballot for Mike Pence. Then Meehan turned around and voted with the president a whopping 89 percent of the time.
The morality of those votes is dubious but at least debatable. But his actions towards his staff, as reported by the Times, are shocking and unconscionable, not to mention immature and unbecoming of a U.S. congressman. What's more, it makes a mockery of his years of pious and — it's now clear — hypocritical statements about public corruption, holding the powerful to account, and protecting the taxpayer from their outrages. Again, to quote Meehan himself, where's the consistency in the justice?
House Speaker Paul Ryan did his best Captain Renault imitation to declare that he was shocked, shocked by Meehan's conduct, yanking him from his Ethics Committee post and demanding that he reimburse taxpayers for the cost of the settlement. That is not nearly enough to make up for a congressman's rank hypocrisy. Pat Meehan needs to apologize to everyone involved — including the residents of Delaware County and the other suburbs shoehorned into the 7th District — and then he needs to resign. Today, if possible.