PA government watchdog is working questionable side job with Philly’s new sheriff

The state director for Common Cause claims his new firm’s consulting work poses no conflict of interest.

Micah Sims is executive director for Common Cause PA

Micah Sims is executive director for Common Cause PA

Facebook / Micah Sims
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As executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, Micah Sims aids the national nonprofit’s mission to “create open, honest, and accountable government that serves the public interest” in the Keystone State.

In an unusual arrangement, however, Sims has been moonlighting as a consultant for an elected official in Philadelphia.

Unbeknownst to his employers at Common Cause PA, Sims has been working on the side as a “senior advisor” to Philadelphia Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, a Democrat, as she sets out to transform the scandal-plagued office left behind by her predecessor.

Sims incorporated a business called “40 Greenwich” shortly after Bilal was elected in November, according to state filings. In an interview this week, Sims said his new firm had been retained to help Bilal transition into office, and noted she’d been a friend of his for two decades.

But his story changed as questions were raised about whether a leader in the good government space should be doing side work for an elected official — and how much money was involved.

Sims first said his consulting for Bilal was business, then switched to a claim that it was “pro bono” as a favor to an old friend. No funds have yet changed hands, but there could be a contract in Sims’ future, the sheriff’s office later acknowledged.

Other potential questions have risen around Sims’ work. On the same day this article was published, Spotlight PA reported that under his direction, Common Cause PA was fined $19,900 by the state Ethics Commission for late filing of lobbying reports.

Nonprofit didn’t know about exec’s side gig

Sims, who was appointed executive director of Common Cause PA in 2017, initially asserted that this kind of consulting did not present a dilemma for the nonprofit, because he wasn’t doing the work directly.

“I have a firm that is working with the sheriff’s office,” Sims originally told Billy Penn, “and I have employees that do the work, which is not a conflict of interest.”

But neither Common Cause Pennsylvania’s board of directors nor the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit’s national leaders were aware of the side job until a reporter brought it to their attention. Neither organization even knew about the existence of Sims’ newly incorporated consultancy.

Scott Swenson, a spokesperson for Common Cause, said employees are not barred from doing work for political campaigns or government offices — so long as it’s on a volunteer basis and they’re not being compensated.

After a reporter made phone calls to the nonprofit headquarters, Sims then claimed that the work his new corporation was doing for Bilal was being done for free. That work includes setting up a 100-day transition plan and analyzing one of the office’s multi-million dollar consultancy contracts, up for renewal in March. (The sheriff’s office has not decided whether it will cancel that contract or bid it out, a spokesperson said.)

The pro bono description stood at odds with what Sims’ own colleague observed. Dave Scholnick, another communications consultant working alongside Sims, said both he and Sims were paid as independent contractors by the sheriff.

He also described Sims as his boss.

“We’re not working pro bono, and we’re not city employees,” Scholnick said Tuesday.

Sims denied Scholnick knew the details of the financial arrangement. Speaking on behalf of the Bilal’s office, Scholnick later said that he personally has a contract with the sheriff to manage day-to-day communications.

Financial arrangements have been discussed between Bilal and Sims, the office acknowledged, but the firm has not yet been paid or signed a contract.

Conflict of interest or favor to a friend?

Founded 50 years ago at the height of the Watergate scandal, Common Cause operates a good government advocacy network spanning 30 states. In Pennsylvania, Sims is the lead nonpartisan watchdog, often speaking out on issues like campaign finance reform and ethics violations made by government officials and agencies.

Sims also earns a living as a pastor, and does consulting work for church groups and other civic organizations. He did political work prior to his hiring at Common Cause Pennsylvania — including a stint managing the mathematically troubled 2017 campaign for Dwayne Woodruff, a Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

But working for an elected official while being paid to keep an eye on them is unusual.

David Thornburgh, executive director at local good government group Committee of Seventy, declined to comment on the specific details of Sims’ work with Bilal. As a fellow watchdog at a large civic institution, Thornburgh said any such arrangement could create bad optics, even if it didn’t break any rules.

“You have to be extraordinarily careful to avoid the reality and the perception of conflicts,” Thornburgh said. “There are a lot of cross currents. At the end of the day, there’s a reputation and a sense of integrity that we are stewards of, and we are carrying that flag.”

Former Common Cause PA director Barry Kaufmann said he was surprised Sims even had the bandwidth to juggle two jobs.

“There was no specific ban on it to my knowledge, but the workflow pretty much precludes it,” said Kaufmann, who held Sims’ current post for three decades. “10-plus, 15-hour days were not unusual.”

Sims could not explain why he would need to incorporate a business to do pro bono work for the sheriff. He told Billy Penn he needed the firm for other consulting work.

Swenson, with Common Cause national, said that while the consulting work was news to the nonprofit, it did not appear to violate the advocacy group’s standards — if it is indeed pro bono.

“Right now, it feels to us that he’s within our policy guidelines,” said Swenson. “We don’t think there’s a conflict here.”

Cushy contracts in a scandal-battered office

Communications at the sheriff’s office have long been a chaotic and unusual affair. Sweetheart contracts have garnered deep scrutiny over the years, and figured prominently in the downfall of now-imprisoned former Sheriff John Green.

Ex-Sheriff Jewell Williams, who lost to Bilal in the primary as he faced a deluge of sexual misconduct and employee harassment claims, also maintained this tradition. Cardenas-Grant, the firm that for years handled Williams’ press relations, still holds a lucrative contract to manage ad placement for sheriff’s sales until March 31, the office confirmed.

In a January email obtained by Billy Penn, Barbara Grant, partner at the firm, introduced Sims as the sheriff’s new “communications director” to a group of newspaper publishers. Grant told them Sims would be conducting an analysis of the entire $8 million a year sheriff’s sale ads program — which was previously being considered for elimination.

Like almost everyone else Billy Penn spoke with, Grant said she did not know Sims was working pro bono.

In official emails sent from a gmail account associated with 40 Greenwich, Sims’ signature lists his title as “senior advisor” to Bilal.

After initially claiming he had minimal involvement, Sims later described a broad overhaul of the office, laying out a 100-day plan for Bilal — all for no charge, he insisted.

“It does seem like a lot of work, but remember, for me, this was about helping her,” Sims said. “Nobody on [Bilal’s] transition team is being compensated. You got a ton of professionals like myself doing pro bono stuff.”

He also said his firm had no interest in taking over the Cardenas-Grant contract, though his firm has not been ruled out. The sheriff’s office emphasized that there are growing pains trying to establish a new order in the office, and acknowledged it may have sent “mixed messages.”

Said Scholnick, the office spokesperson: “It’s only been about a month and these structures are still being worked out. There were some assumptions made before the sheriff took office that turned out to be premature given the way things really work.”

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