AN APPEARANCE by Tommy the Loan Shark, the heckling mascot who dogs mayoral candidate Tom Knox, got ugly yesterday when publicist Frank Keel broke into Tommy's news conference and insisted that rival Bob Brady was funding the fish and his sidekick, Jim Nixon.

How did Keel claim to know Brady was behind the Shark attacks on Knox's history with high-interest payday lending?

"I know the truth, because they approached me first and foremost to run this shadow operation," Keel said. "I find this disgusting, deplorable."

Keel told reporters that on Feb. 9, Brady political operative Ken Smukler tried to recruit him to run a secret operation to harass Knox.

"They wanted me to organize a grassroots-style organization, that had a total firewall between the Brady campaign," Keel said. "They would basically make payments intermittently into an account. I had complete carte blanche [on] how to use that money to organize some of the faith-based communities, some of the community-activist types, up to a million dollars."

Smukler, who resigned last night as the controversy over his actions grew, admitted meeting with Keel, but said he had made it clear he wasn't acting on behalf of any candidate or campaign, even though he'd worked on Brady's mayoral announcement the previous month.

Smukler said he suggested Keel set up a "527" committee, a political operation independent of any candidate that would could accept contributions and attack Knox's record.

"I called Frank Keel to see if he would set up a structure, so that once people in this town recognized the threat of Tom Knox, there would be a vehicle to take their money and take him down," Smukler said, adding that he'd spoken to a number of people about the idea.

Smukler acknowledged that he'd worked for the Brady campaign before he met with Keel, and that after that he helped with debates, public appearances and editorial-board meetings as a consultant to Brady's congressional campaign.

The news conference outside was heated, as Nixon, Tommy the Shark's talking sidekick, said he'd been followed and harassed by people he believes are from Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, one of Keel's clients.

Nixon said he hadn't reported any of these incidents to police, and couldn't identify anyone.

"Back your thugs off!" Nixon told Keel. "Keep your thugs away from me!"

"Aw, shut up with the thugs!" Keel shot back.

"Shut up! Shut up! That's real classy. You're a classy guy," Nixon responded.

Keel then addressed the shark, who hadn't spoken.

"Tommy, give us your name, pal," Keel said. "It's time. Come on, 'fess up."

"You let Tommy be," Nixon said, still refusing to identify the man in the fish suit. "Tommy's a nice guy."

Keel said he had "preliminary information" that the shark was a member of the carpenter's union who lives in New Jersey, and "may have ties" to the Pagans motorcycle gang.

Local 98 business manager John Dougherty denied Nixon's accusations that his members were harassing him.

Dougherty also said that in February, Smukler made the same proposal to him he'd made to Keel.

"I'm sorry to hear Smukler is resigning," Dougherty said last night. "He's a good guy. Brady should've fired the fish."

Dougherty has been linked to the Knox campaign in recent press reports. He says he hasn't endorsed anyone, but many of his union members and their families like Knox and he won't stand in the way of their supporting him. *