AN AIDE to Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell has been linked to a nonprofit that has hosted fundraisers for her, despite a ban on city employees engaging in political fundraising.
Saboor Muhammed, who has worked for Blackwell for about three years, is listed as the "chairman" of the nonprofit Southwest Philadelphia District Services on its website. He is also listed as a contact person on other promotional materials distributed by the group.
A flier obtained by the Daily News shows that group organized and promoted a $20-a-head fundraiser for Blackwell on March 22, 2014, at a bar in Upper Darby.
When asked in a phone conversation last week if he was involved with Southwest, Muhammed repeated, "No, no, no," and abruptly hung up after refusing to answer further questions.
But Blackwell had a slightly different recollection.
"Sure, I know [Muhammed] is involved with that group," she said. "I've know that group for some years, known him for many, many years. . . . That group is like many others."
Blackwell ought to remember the group, since the nonprofit hosts an annual "Jannie L. Blackwell Community Day" each year. But did it also host fundraisers for the councilwoman?
"Yeah, one or two. What's the problem?" Blackwell asked.
The problem is the city forbids its employees - even City Council employees - from getting involved with political fundraising.
"The rules are pretty clear and there for good reason," said David Thornburgh, of the government watchdog Committee of Seventy. "I'm not commenting on this specific instance, but we know why the rules are there and I'm sure the Board of Ethics will come to their own conclusions."
Blackwell would say little else on the subject. She declined to describe Muhammed's duties (he earns $47,930 a year as an office assistant), although she alluded to his friendship with her late husband, U.S. Rep. Lucien Blackwell.
When the issue of possible ethical violations came up, the councilwoman said she would not go through "an interrogation on the phone about a community group" and refused to answer further questions.
Southwest Philadelphia District Services also has made small donations - some under an address that Muhammed has used as a residence - to several political candidates, including Blondell Reynolds Brown and state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who is running for mayor. Election law prohibits nonprofit corporations from donating directly to political candidates.
Despite - or perhaps because of - its political activities, the group has benefited from city money. Southwest Philadelphia District Services landed a $190,000 grant from the city's Department of Housing and Community Development in 2012 to renovate a dilapidated building on Woodland Avenue near 52nd Street for use as a headquarters. But that building is still boarded up.
Muhammed's involvement with Southwest came to light after a recent zoning meeting hosted by the nonprofit pitted neighbors against the group. The group is a "Registered Community Organization" - a special group approved by the city to handle neighborhood zoning meetings for development projects - and infuriated some neighbors at a recent zoning meeting, where a Southwest representative declined to hold a vote to approve the renovation of a local church building.
It was a popular project. The crumbling church in Southwest Philadelphia was about to meet the wrecking ball last year when preservationists, community members, developers and former Mayor Wilson Goode united to save the 19th-century church, which was designed by legendary architect Frank Furness. Two day-care centers nearby were bursting at the seams, and a deal was hashed out for a private developer to renovate the church with the day cares as tenants.
But Southwest declined to support the zoning changes needed for the project.
"I think they said they wanted a $10,000 donation," said zoning lawyer Carl Primavera, who represents project developer Guy Lauren. "And I said, 'Look, that's not within any scope of reality here.' You can't add layers of expense to things that are hard to get done in the first place."
At a raucous community meeting later hosted by Southwest, the group's representative, Jihad Ali, repeatedly interrupted neighbors who had arrived to support the project and tabled a vote to determine whether the project got community approval.
Ali did not respond to calls for comment.
After that meeting, upset neighbors started to grumble online about Muhammed's apparent involvement with the nonprofit.
The group has been involved in zoning controversies before. In 2013, members of the nonprofit attempted to hold up approval for a West Philadelphia woman who wanted to open a taco cart on a vacant lot unless she offered up a similar "donation," according to Philadelphia City Paper.
"They can't treat everyone that comes into the neighborhood like there's a price of admission," Primavera said.