A RECENT PROBE by the

city Board of Ethics points to a previously undisclosed effort by Local 98 of the electricians union to sway the 2007 mayoral election with a last-minute cash barrage.

Local 98, headed by former Democratic Party treasurer John Dougherty, was backing multimillionaire Tom Knox. Spending more than $10 million of his own money for TV commercials, Knox was leading the Democratic primary contest with a month to go.

But in the last two weeks of the campaign, Michael Nutter emerged as the top candidate with a chance to beat Knox, and Nutter began to surge past the union's candidate.

Enter Local 98's Committee on Political Education.

In the last four days before the May primary, the union's political-action committee wrote four checks, totaling $60,000, to the PAC run by state Sen. Vincent Hughes, who wasn't on the ballot and had received only $2,000 from the union in the previous five years.

Hughes was a close ally of another mayoral contender, Chaka Fattah. The money from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers provided more than 90 percent of the $64,596 cash that Hughes was able to distribute on Election Day to hundreds of people handing out his sample ballots. Fattah's name was on top of the ballots, bigger than anyone else's.

Hughes told Clout yesterday that he'd been soliciting money from Dougherty for months and had no idea why the union had given him so much, right before the primary. He said that he had no discussions with Dougherty about his sample ballot, "but he obviously knew I was supporting the congressman [Fattah]," along with other candidates that the union liked, including Council hopefuls Bill Green and Sharif Street.

The Ethics Board got interested because Hughes had given $10,700 in cash to Al Spivey, the political operative running Curtis Jones' campaign for City Council. The city's campaign-finance ordinance set a $10,000 limit on PAC donations to Council candidates, so the payment raised immediate flags. That and other problems led the Ethics Board to levy $30,000 in fines last week against the Jones and Hughes campaigns.

But the union's payments to the Hughes PAC were lawful, since Hughes is a state official, not bound by the city's limits on campaign donations. Even though the money wound up being used to influence city elections, it was a loophole recognized when the city established its limits. It's a loophole that can be closed only by the Legislature, which has shown little interest in reducing the money flowing into state political campaigns.

The union's last-minute effort was consistent with several other union strategems - a set of illegal, anonymous fliers distributed in the closing days of the campaign, attacking both Nutter and U.S. Rep. Bob Brady; a $15,000 donation to mayoral candidate Dwight Evans, and a $20,000 donation to One Step Closer, an ostensibly independent PAC that aired some anti-Nutter ads.

Dougherty failed to return Clout's calls, a habit he picked up last year after losing his bid for Vince Fumo's Senate seat.

Poles apart

For roughly 45 years, weather permitting, the region's Polish-American community has celebrated the Feb. 4 birthday of Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko with a small parade and a weekend ceremony at 3rd and Pine streets, where the general lived in a rooming house, a building now owned by the National Park Service.

But this year, the building is closed for renovations and the Nutter administration said that the city's Polish American Congress would have to pay as much as $3,055 to cover police services for the ceremony next Saturday. The Congress decided to skip 3rd and Pine altogether, and to celebrate instead in the Holiday Inn, at 4th and Arch, where lunch was already scheduled.

"We're not blaming Mayor Nutter, by any means," said the group's president, Michael Blichasz. "He happens to be the mayor in very, very difficult economic times. You have to support your general services and pull back on the fluff."

Blichasz said that he hopes that the city will meet with civic groups to discuss ways to hold down the city's charges for similar events and make sure that all organizations are treated equally.

Prosecutors corral cash

Dan McCaffrey hasn't formally opened his campaign for D.A., but he's leading the race for cash. Ahead of Monday's deadline for finance reports, campaign manager Josh Morrow said that the former prosecutor had nearly $250,000 cash on hand at the end of 2008 - almost as much as his four rivals put together.

Seth Williams raised $135,664 last year, almost as much as he spent four years ago on his campaign against incumbent Lynne Abraham, said campaign spokesman Dan Fee. Williams' year-end balance was uncertain.

Former City Councilman Dan McElhatton had roughly $105,000 in his campaign account at year's end, according to spokesman Anthony Ingargiola. Brian Grady estimated he had $20,000 at the end of the year. Figures were not available for the other candidate, Michael Turner.

Hanging on

Vince Fumo's estranged son-in-law, Christian Marrone, will be keeping his job as the Pentagon's liaison with Congress, at least temporarily. The Politico Web site says that holdover Defense Secretary Robert Gates is keeping about 150 political appointees, including Marrone, a key witness against Fumo at his corruption trial.

Talk about Super . . .

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady and his wife, Debbie, a former Eagles cheerleader, will be watching the Super Bowl at the U.S. Naval Observatory, now the official residence of Vice President Joe Biden. Brady and the VP got to know each other commuting to Congress on Amtrak.

No word who's bringing the guacamole. *

Staff writers Bob Warner, Dave Davies and Gar Joseph contributed to this report.