The city Board of Ethics will issue subpoenas to expedite its initial inquiry into whether the "527" political committees formed to attack mayoral candidate Tom Knox are truly independent of other campaigns, the board's chief said yesterday.
"I intend to issue subpoenas . . . with a very short turnaround time," said J. Shane Creamer, interim executive director of the board. "We need a lot more facts, and I'm going to work my hardest this week to get those facts."
The 527s, which take their name from the section of the IRS code that governs them, were made famous by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which in 2004 slammed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's Vietnam War record.
Word of the ethics board's inquiry comes as a commercial by one 527, the Working People for Truth, began airing against Knox. Using pictures of news clips to undercut Knox's claim to be a reform-minded outsider, the ad concludes: "Tom Knox - fake, fake, fake." The same word is used in an ad that U.S. Rep. Bob Brady's mayoral campaign is airing.
Knox's campaign said it was considering legal action against Working People for Truth and another 527 that has been formed to attack the businessman, who has been leading the five-person Democratic mayoral campaign in recent polls.
Federal law allows such committees to raise and spend unlimited amounts of "soft money" to advocate for or against candidates as long as they do not coordinate with any campaign. If there is collusion, the groups also run afoul of a city campaign law that allows candidates to spend from only one campaign committee.
Knox is largely financing his own campaign with his personal fortune, but his opponents are hampered by new city contribution limits. On Friday, Brady adviser Ken Smukler resigned from the campaign after it was revealed he had spoken with several people about creating 527 groups to go after Knox while he was working with Brady.
He talked with Frank Keel, political adviser to union leader John J. Dougherty, and with former City Commissioner Alex Z. Talmadge Jr., who later formed a group - Economic Justice Coalition for Truth - that is raising money for anti-Knox ads.
Brady's campaign denies any connection with either of the two 527 groups.
Creamer, of the ethics board, said that if a campaign were found to be coordinating with organizers of a 527 committee, the board could seek a judicial restraining order to stop the group's activities - and also could impose a $1,500 fine for each violation, which would occur each time an ad aired.
The board would take such action only if it determines there was a violation of the city law, Creamer said. "We want to determine if there is sufficient cause to proceed," he said last night. "We just don't have enough information to make that determination."
If coordination between a 527 and a campaign is proved, those responsible also could be subject to federal sanctions for violating the tax code. Swift Boat Veterans for Truth had to pay heavy fines because one of its lawyers worked for President Bush's reelection campaign, though long after the damage to Kerry was done.
Josh Morrow, Knox's campaign manager, said his suspicions were aroused by the similarity of language between the Working People for Truth and Brady ads, as well as Smukler's contacts with Talmadge.
"This is illegal, illegal, illegal," Morrow said. "If the federal law was broken, someone should go to jail for this."
Meanwhile, State Rep. Dwight Evans held a rally last night at the West Philadelphia YMCA that drew more than 200 people for song, Scripture and preaching. It was organized by the city's largest group of black ministers, the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, which has endorsed Evans.
He said the city needs "a little more church" as it confronts the serious problem of violence on the streets, and vowed that he was ready to "move this city to another level, to work in every neighborhood, with every race and group of people."
The veteran state representative has been trailing in polls, but the latest surveys also have shown a large group of undecided voters. "In any election, you always have people telling you what you can't do," Evans said. "But the last time I checked, the power is in the hands of the people. You decide."