Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philly election official Renee Tartaglione admits violating ban on political activity

Renee Tartaglione, the top election official under Philadelphia's three elected city commissioners - who include her mother - ordered 2,000 ballots that deliberately misled voters, collected election day "street money" from the city's Democratic Party, and served as a substitute ward leader for her jailed husband.

Renee Tartaglione, the top election official under Philadelphia's three elected city commissioners - who include her mother - ordered 2,000 ballots that deliberately misled voters, collected election day "street money" from the city's Democratic Party, and served as a substitute ward leader for her jailed husband.

Tartaglione's regular participation in campaigns between 2007 and 2009 violated a long-standing ban on political activity by city employees, and was particularly noteworthy because she oversaw an office charged with ensuring that elections are fair and impartial. The office is also under scrutiny by some who believe it should be abolished.

A 27-year city employee, whose title was chief deputy city commissioner, Tartaglione surprised colleagues three weeks ago by announcing she would quit the next day, Nov. 16.

Explaining her sudden retirement to a reporter, she lamented the 2008 death of her father, and said she wanted to travel and sought the flexibility "to do the things I want to do when I want to do them."

She failed to mention that on Nov. 12, Philadelphia's Board of Ethics had disclosed to her that it had conducted a 14-month investigation and believed she had violated the Home Rule Charter.

Before the board could initiate legal action to impose fines, Tartaglione hired a criminal-defense lawyer, William Brennan; agreed to pay a civil penalty of $2,700; and admitted to nine violations in a settlement agreement released Monday by the Ethics Board. Tartaglione then also announced her retirement.

She has begun collecting monthly pension payments of $4,237, for which she became eligible when she turned 55 on Oct. 31.

Tartaglione, who is not charged with a crime, referred calls to Brennan. He said the timing of her retirement with the Ethics Board's disclosure was "a coincidence." Brennan also described the violations as "more technical than substantive" and similar to those committed by several other city officials penalized by the Ethics Board.

However, the nature of her day-in, day-out job put Tartaglione in a unique position, the board's executive director, J. Shane Creamer Jr., said Monday. "She was essentially taking sides in elections when she is responsible for running an impartial election process," he said. Creamer said a confidential complaint spurred the investigation.

Much of what Tartaglione admitted to was personal in nature, indirectly involving her husband, 19th Ward leader Carlos Matos, or her mother, longtime City Commissioners Chairwoman Margaret Tartaglione, who is also leader of the 62d Ward, which covers part of lower Northeast Philadelphia.

According to the settlement agreement, on six occasions - all in the days leading up to primary and general election days in 2007, 2008, and 2009 - Renee Tartaglione collected campaign-contribution checks for both those wards from a political committee run by the city Democratic Party. Totaling $56,000, the money was later used to pay election-day workers in those wards.

Matos during those years was in a federal prison for bribing three Atlantic City councilmen.

In his absence, his wife functioned as the de facto leader of the 19th Ward, according to the settlement agreement. On Oct. 27, 2009, she held a ward meeting to give committee people election-day assignments, and a few days later arranged a ward meeting to give committee people campaign literature.

In the 2008 primary election, Tartaglione ordered 4,500 campaign posters, 20,000 palm cards, and 64,000 ballots on behalf of Jonathan Ramos, a candidate for state representative who tried to unseat Rep. Angel Cruz. Cruz and Matos are longtime enemies in a battle for political control of Philadelphia's Latino neighborhoods.

In her quest to oust Cruz, Tartaglione also ordered 2,000 ballots that told pro-Cruz voters to press button No. 25 to elect him to the Pennsylvania House, instead of the correct button, No. 15, according to the settlement agreement and an interview with a source.

All of the campaign materials were partially distributed by the 19th Ward, and some were paid for by Tartaglione by personal check.

In the 2009 primary, Tartaglione tried again to weaken Cruz, this time promoting the candidacies of 32 people running in the Seventh Ward, which Cruz leads, for election judge and machine inspector. Using a check from a real estate business she runs, Tartaglione ordered 5,100 ballots with those 32 names on them.

The Seventh and 19th Wards include parts of North Philadelphia east of Broad Street, areas with significant Hispanic populations.

Cruz planned a news conference for Tuesday in response to Tartaglione's admissions.

Two prominent groups - the Committee of Seventy and the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority - have in recent years questioned the need for an independent elections office and whether it is truly nonpartisan. The office is overseen by the three commissioners, two Democrats and one Republican, who are all ward leaders and as such are prominent political players.

The Ethics Board's findings, said committee president Zack Stalberg, "really vindicates the Committee of Seventy's belief that elections in Philadelphia should be run by professionals and not ward leaders with a vested interest in the outcome of elections."

None of the city commissioners who supervised Tartaglione - her mother, Anthony Clark, or Joseph Duda - returned calls Monday.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, the city's Democratic Party chairman, and Michael Meehan, his GOP counterpart, declined to comment.

Asked for comment from Mayor Nutter, spokesman Mark McDonald was terse. "The Board of Ethics is doing the job it is assigned under the law," said McDonald, declining to address the details of the case.

Asked whether Tartaglione's admissions undermined the mission of the City Commissioners Office, McDonald pointed to Nutter's establishment of a chief integrity officer and the continuing work of the city's inspector general. "Together with the work that the Ethics Board does," he said, "it's fair to say that we've come a long way from the dark days in the prior administration."