With 1,000 federal convictions in 40 years, corruption is ever-present in Philadelphia

Philly isn’t the worst U.S. city, but the pace doesn’t seem to have slowed.

The U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia, at 6th and Market streets

The U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia, at 6th and Market streets

AP Photo / Matt Rourke

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Federal prosecutors in Philadelphia have convicted more than 1,000 people on a dizzying array of public corruption charges over the last 40 years.

Despite the city’s inglorious reputation as one of the most “corrupt and contented” in the U.S., these figures don’t even land Philly in the country’s top five. Government watchdogs and attorneys, however, note that conviction numbers don’t tell the whole story.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, which encompases a large swath from Philadelphia to Allentown, sits at No. 7 in the nation for total public corruption convictions over the last four decades.

The Philly-centered district has seen 1,059 convictions since 1979, according to an analysis from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Over the decades, Chicago has for the most part been the unrivalled leader, racking up more than 1,700 corruption-related convictions, followed by Los Angeles and New York.

The DOJ’s Public Integrity Section began collecting data on federal corruption convictions in the late 70s, said Joshua Stueve, a spokesperson for the DOJ Criminal Division. The latest report was released in December.

In Philadelphia, indictments have capped off scandals from Abscam to mob extortion, and ensnared powerful figures like former state Sen. Vince Fumo and former District Attorney Seth Williams. The cases detail a rogue’s gallery of other crooked elected officials, duplicitous bureaucrats, and thieving government workers whose actions have tarnished the public faith in government. Per capita, Pennsylvania as a whole ranks No. 5 among states.

When you look at federal corruption convictions in the last decade only, Philly ranks No. 9. Interestingly, however, the pace hasn’t slowed much compared to other cities.

The Philadelphia district continues to average 250 to 300 convictions per decade. Chicago’s federal district went from over 500 convictions in the ’80s to just 285 in the 2010s.

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Government watchdogs say the rankings paint an incomplete portrait.

“Like most datasets, it reveals some things but not everything,” said David Thornburgh, director of the nonpartisan Committee of Seventy. “Some districts are more aggressive in their approach to prosecution. They have greater resources. Different U.S. attorneys come and go.”

The Eastern District has averaged roughly 26 corruption convictions annually.

But the data does not include any cases where the defendant was eventually acquitted. In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowed the scope of what defines corruption making it harder to land some convictions.

In 2017, D.C.-based Governing mag laughably but unironically suggested that Philadelphia had “wiped out” corruption. The city has made some progress, Thornburgh maintains. Ramping up the city’s ethics board, curbing pay-to-play politics and enforcing stricter campaign contribution limits have helped make the local government cleaner, he says.

Yet the current situation shows the problem persists.

Two sitting Philly councilmembers are currently under federal indictment and awaiting trial. In the last decade, corruption scandals dogged droves of state representatives, a veteran congressman, a district attorney, as well as a vast range of bureaucrats, municipal workers and political operatives. The Philadelphia Police Department also weathers corruption scandals with tidal regularity.

Linda Dale Hoffa, a lawyer at Dilworth Paxson who worked in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for decades, said much of the climate is the same as it was in the 1980s, with politicians and union officials still acting in ways that bring them into law enforcement’s crosshairs.

While technology has helped federal authorities build cases, Hoffa said government officials have learned to adapt to the perennial possibility of bugs and wiretaps.

“People who are subject to these kinds of investigations have become much more sophisticated,” Hoffa said. “They know what conversations to have and not have.”

The former prosecutor added: “A lot can be done by a wink and a nod.”

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