Before she joined Mayor Nutter's cabinet, Melanie Johnson worked for the Philadelphia Housing Authority - and was a key player in a plan to hit up agency contractors for charitable donations.
Documents obtained by The Inquirer show that Johnson, now Philadelphia city representative, was a leader in a 2003 proposal by PHA staff to solicit donations from corporations, businesses, and law firms.
She distributed a "call list" of target firms to a team of PHA staffers, explaining: "Everyone on this list has received more than $1 million in contract fees from the PHA in the past year."
Ultimately, the move to solicit the vendors was squelched amid a legal debate over whether it was permissible. But in the years that followed, PHA officials embraced the same aggressive approach to fund-raising again and again.
In an interview Wednesday, Johnson said she was merely following instructions from supervisors and had raised her own doubts about the plan. As a top city official, Johnson said, she would now oppose any such effort to solicit municipal contractors for charitable gifts.
Though the 2003 fund-raising initiative was shut down, top agency officials have since repeatedly dunned contractors, senior PHA executives, and even middle-level agency workers for donations - charitable giving that in some cases raised money to salute Carl R. Greene, the agency's now-embattled chief.
Consider these fund-raising programs, news of which has surfaced in recent days:
Despite the earlier qualms, PHA went on to solicit contractors for a 2008 dinner "to celebrate Mr. Greene's 10th anniversary at PHA." As The Inquirer has reported, vendors were asked to put up as much as $5,000 apiece. The money was funneled through the same nonprofit, known as Tenant Support Services Inc. (TSSI), that was to receive the 2003 charitable donations.
As the Philadelphia Daily News reported this week, the agency has told some contractors who were falling short of meeting minority-participation goals that they could satisfy requirements by giving money to TSSI.
Top Greene aides put the squeeze on senior PHA executives to donate as much as $150 a shot to pay for other dinners to celebrate Greene's work. This happened as many as four times a year in recent years.
PHA put into effect an automatic deduction plan for mid-level managers under which $110 yearly was taken out of their pay to finance what Greene says were "team-building" events on PHA time - bowling trips, visits to the zoo, barbecues.
In the interview Wednesday, Johnson, who worked at PHA from 2002 to 2007, said she was "just an employee at the time" she circulated the list of vendors to be solicited for donations - for amounts up to $15,000.
She said she did not remember the fund-raising plan in detail, but did recall raising concerns with others about it.
As city representative, Johnson is responsible for promoting Philadelphia and burnishing its image.
In 2003, the pitch was that donations would buy holiday toys for the needy. But the money was to be routed through the TSSI nonprofit - an organization with a record of spending most of its money on its own staff salaries and benefits, IRS nonprofit records show.
In fiscal 2003-04, for example, it took in $914,000, but spent $850,000 on payroll, benefits, administration, and travel.
Greene, in an interview given before he went into seclusion after controversy embroiled him, defended the solicitation practices within the agency he has run for a dozen years.
"What's wrong with businesses and wealthy folks giving contributions to TSSI?" he said. "None of it goes to me, none of that goes to Carl Greene."
PHA officials have said the fund-raising for the Greene fetes helped raise scholarship money for youngsters who lived in public housing. However, they also said Greene was given personal gifts - a CD player, theater tickets, and the like.
Of the deduction from about 300 staffers' paychecks to finance the "team-building" activities, Greene said, "We don't require staff to contribute to it." The programs helped PHA staff work better together, he said.
But Alphonso Jackson, former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development who has long been a strong critic of Greene's, said he found it troubling that contractors had been solicited.
"No, I never did that, and I think 98 percent of [public] housing executives never did that," Jackson, who formerly headed public housing in Dallas, said during an interview Wednesday.
In Philadelphia, a former junior executive at PHA also had a negative view.
She said she resented being asked to give money for the quarterly dinners that honored Greene, but paid anyway.
"If I had said, 'No, I'm not going to go to that party, I'm not going to contribute $100,' would I have been fired? Probably not," she said. "But I felt intimidated."
The ex-manager, who asked not to be identified, and others have said that the deductions program was a subject of some in-house dismay.
"There was a collective discomfort on the part of people with conscience," she said.
A key leader in some of the solicitations was Richard Zappile, PHA's police force director and a close Greene aide.
In an interview Wednesday, Zappile again elaborated on his role in collecting money in-house from top managers for the dinners in honor of Greene. Zappile was frank about his approach.
"Some people would dig in their heels and absolutely say no," he said. "And I would pressure them."
However, Zappile said the pressure consisted of verbally demanding that people kick in money. There was no retaliation when workers refused, he said.
"Nothing ever happened to them," he said, referring to those who would not contribute.
Zappile said it was no fun making the rounds, seeking the payments, as compared with planning the events.
"I would collect the money," he said. "Which was the worst part. People would stiff me."
Some staffers, he said, would grumble about having to attend parties on their own time to salute their boss.
Zappile said some attendees at the bashes would be non-PHA people, such as lawyers who had contracts with the agency. And at times, he said, other outsiders would complain that they had not been invited to attend.
"We would get calls afterward from lawyers - 'Why didn't we go?' " he recalled.
The agency's culture of aggressive outside fund-raising is clearly on display in the 2003 documents.
They show that Johnson and about a dozen other PHA officials worked to put together that year's December TSSI fund-raiser, a holiday party to be held at a union hall.
The records show that in the fall of 2003, the planners wondered if it was appropriate to go after agency contractors for donations.
Minutes from an Oct. 8, 2003, planning session show that planners decided to seek legal guidance on this question:
"Can PHA employees contact PHA vendors, partners, unions, etc., to solicit funds or items for a fund-raising event on behalf of TSSI?"
According to one PHA document, the team planned to seek the legal advice from agency general counsel Marc Woolley. The records do not say what advice, if any, Woolley gave.
(Now of counsel to the Ballard Spahr firm, Woolley said Wednesday that he did not recall being asked for his opinion or giving it. In late 2003, he was about to leave PHA, and perhaps the issue was never brought to him for assessment, he said.)
In November 2003, Johnson distributed the "call list," divvying up contractors and assigning various workers the task of calling them to seek donations. Johnson put herself down to call two law firms and a business. In all, there were more than 50 contractors on the list, ranging from Ballard Spahr in Philadelphia to Peco Energy and IBM.
But three days after that, Zappile sent out a mass e-mail putting an end to the "call list" approach.
Neither Johnson nor Zappile could recall precisely why he called a halt to the initiative seven years ago.
Said Zappile: "I would like to say I stood up and said, 'This is not ethical.' But I can't remember."
In general, Zappile said, his view is that while it was problematic to solicit money from PHA contractors, it was permissible to dun PHA staffers.
"I didn't want to get involved with the vendors," he said. "The employees are different."
Kirk Dorn, a spokesman for PHA, said Wednesday that the fund-raising holiday party continues to be the biggest event of each year for TSSI.
According to Dorn, staffers of the nonprofit do most of the labor preparing for the holiday party, though PHA workers do provide some support.
"We felt it was a great cause," Dorn said. "The whole point of the party was to raise funds for public housing children."
He added, "This was not a huge undertaking by the PHA staff."
According to the group's most recent available public tax return, it raised $905,625 in revenue for the year ending June 30, 2008. About $400,000 was federal funds from PHA.
As in 2003, the bulk of its spending went to employee and administrative costs.
Asia Coney, director of TSSI and a public housing tenant, did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment. She is paid more than $100,000 to head the nonprofit.
No one appeared to be there when a reporter stopped at the group's West Philadelphia office Wednesday.
Whatever time PHA officials put into such fund-raising in the past, Dorn said the current practice was that only workers from the nonprofit may solicit money. PHA workers do not do it, he said.