City Council's smoldering distaste for the Board of Ethics it created three years ago erupted yesterday as Council Majority Leader Marian B. Tasco called for the ouster of its executive director.
Tasco demanded the removal of J. Shane Creamer Jr., the only person to hold the post, based on his admitted violation of the board's confidentiality code last month when he discussed an investigation of Democratic district attorney candidate R. Seth Williams with a Philadelphia Daily News reporter.
"If we are to maintain a board of the highest order, authorized to enforce our ethics laws, we must preserve the public trust," Tasco said in a speech at the end of Council's regular meeting. "Therefore, Mr. Creamer must be removed immediately from his position as the executive director of the Ethics Board."
Mayor Nutter did not call for Creamer's ouster but said the Ethics Board should have referred the investigation to an outside agency, such as the city's inspector general.
"I'm very concerned about what has happened here," said Nutter, who, during his time as a councilman, authored the legislation that set up the May 2006 referendum creating the board. "And I think the board needs to revisit the entire situation."
The inspector general works for the mayor, while the Ethics Board is an independent agency, and the only one charged with interpreting the city ethics law.
Furthermore, the Ethics Board is the sole entity with the authority to discipline Creamer, whose yearly salary is $120,020. The board fined him $500.
"The board rejects any notion that Mr. Creamer's resignation is warranted on the facts of this case and has full confidence in the integrity and effectiveness of Mr. Creamer as its executive director," the board said in a statement.
Creamer said he won't resign as long as he has the board's confidence.
"I report to the board and answer to the board," Creamer said. "If people take the time to look at the facts and circumstances which led to the settlement agreement with the Ethics Board, I think they will have full confidence in my integrity and the board's effectiveness."
Creamer's version of events goes like this: On May 5, two weeks before the Democratic primary, he received a call from a reporter seeking to confirm a rumor that Williams would be fined $16,000 by the Ethics Board for campaign violations.
The rumor was untrue. Williams would later settle with the board on a $3,750 fine.
Creamer said he thought a no-comment would fan the flames, interfering with settlement negotiations with the Williams campaign and potentially harming the campaign with false information. Instead, he told the reporter off the record that the board was working with Williams on a settlement, a disclosure that was a violation of the ethics code. Realizing he had breached the restriction on discussing any pending investigations, Creamer disclosed his lapse to the board.
Board Chairman Richard Glazer said the board consulted with outside counsel and quickly came to a settlement agreement with Creamer that included the $500 fine.
Tasco called the fine a "slap on the wrist."
Glazer noted that fines for individual penalties have ranged from zero to $2,000, and called the penalty fair.
City Council has no love for the Ethics Board. Council members and other politicians have variously accused the board of selectively enforcing regulations, usurping authority rightly belonging to the city solicitor, and targeting politicians for technical violations they were not always aware of. The board's finding that members of boards and commissions cannot participate in political activity has been especially galling.
Council has also expressed its displeasure with the Ethics Board by asking Nutter to withdraw the nomination of retired business executive Edward Kung, even though the five-member board has two vacancies.
"He's a nice gentleman with a wonderful resume, but the feeling is that his strength does not lie in this area," Tasco said.
Councilman Darrell Clarke said he and others perceived "significant inconsistencies" in the board's application of the law.
Committee of Seventy President Zack Stalberg, whose organization has made ethics reform its mission, was singled out by Tasco for being "uncharacteristically silent" on Creamer's transgression, and questioned whether he had a "two-tiered standard of ethics."
Stalberg said he was satisfied that both Creamer and the Board of Ethics acted appropriately and transparently to resolve the issue.
He said he understood why the agency "chose to take care of it themselves" to preserve its independence. As for asking for Creamer's removal, "it's a handy way to try and rein them in and limit their authority," Stalberg said.