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Philadelphia City Councilmembers Bobby Henon and Kenyatta Johnson both accepted tens of thousands in cash donations to support legal defense costs related to their respective indictments on federal corruption charges — including some from prominent political donors, lobbyists and even a strip club owner.
Financial disclosure forms show that in 2020, Henon collected more than $44,000 from 20 donors while Johnson funneled around $38,000 from 87 donors into his personal defense fund.
Such legal aid contributions are considered “gifts” under city ethics laws, which generally prohibit gifts from entities seeking to influence government officials. But Henon accepted money from parking magnate Joseph Zuritsky and later co-sponsored a bill designed to cut parking taxes.
Henon, who represents Northeast Philly’s District 6, and Johnson, of South and Southwest Philly’s District 2, also took thousands in legal defense money from numerous registered lobbyists.
Unlike ordinary campaign accounts, ethics advocates say legal defense funds are not heavily regulated.
“It’s extremely problematic that Pennsylvania doesn’t have a blanket ban on lobbyists giving gifts to lawmakers,” said Beth Rotman, director of ethics and money in politics at Common Cause, a national nonpartisan watchdog group.
In response to questions from Billy Penn and WHYY News, Johnson said he would return “less than $5,000” to donors he identified as lobbyists. Johnson and his wife, Dawn Chavous, were indicted in 2020 for allegedly accepting bribes from executives at a South Philly nonprofit in return for sweetheart real estate deals. Both have pleaded not guilty and are heading to trial.
Meanwhile, an attorney for Henon maintained his legal defense donations did not present any conflict — despite the councilmember’s sponsorship of the tax cut bill that would have benefitted Zuritsky mere months later. Henon was federally indicted in 2019 in a corruption and embezzlement scheme, under charges the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 paid Henon to do its bidding on Council. He has also pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.
Federal court battles don’t come cheap, and both lawmakers turned to their allies to help foot the bill. Adam Bonin, an election attorney retained by Henon, countered that legal defense funds are important tools for a fair trial. The federal government sometimes builds flimsy cases, he noted, pointing to the unsuccessful prosecution of former state Sen. Larry Farnese.
“Do we run the risk of scaring people out of public life? They need a way to raise funds to defend themselves,” Bonin said. “The federal government has unlimited resources.”
Ethics groups critiqued legal defense funds, because they operate with few restrictions.
In Philadelphia, campaign donors are limited to annual contributions of $3,100 for individuals or $12,600 for groups. However, there are no limits for cash gifts to an elected official’s legal coffers. And while campaigns are required to regularly disclose new donations and expenditures throughout an election year, legal gifts are only listed on annual disclosure forms. There is also no public documentation of how defense fund money gets spent.
Shane Creamer Jr., executive director of the Philadelphia Board of Ethics, said the funds fall under the city’s gift rule. As of 2016, anyone who recently sought or is seeking official action from the city is barred from cash gift giving. That ban applies to lobbyists, by definition.
“It prohibits the accepting of gifts from anyone seeking to influence an official action in close proximity to the time that gift is received, and in which the official can take action,” Creamer said.
The people who ‘expect to be remembered’
Henon’s list of legal defense fund donations includes $1,000 from Joseph Zuritsky, chairman of parking lot and development company Parkway Corporation.
Parkway has long sought to lower the city’s parking tax rate. Lobbying disclosure records show that in 2020, the company had registered lobbyists working on its behalf in City Hall.
Joseph and his son, CEO Robert Zuritsky, had in 2019 donated about $5,500 to Henon’s campaign. The elder Zuritsky also sent along another $2,000 in campaign cash last year, prior to donating to Henon’s defense effort.
In the spring of 2021, mere months after Joseph Zuritsky wrote a check to Henon’s legal fund, the lawmaker co-sponsored a bill to slash the parking tax by nearly a third. Bonin, the lawyer, defended the move because the donation was made last December, and the bill wasn’t introduced until May.
“The statute says ‘close proximity’ to an official act,” Bonin said. “If you stretch it to mean a couple months later, then you might as well get rid of that language altogether. It’s asking donors to foresee what’s going on in the future.”
Rotman, from Common Cause, did not buy that explanation. “These are the people who expect to be remembered,” Rotman said. “It doesn’t matter if it was two months ago, or one year ago.”
Henon also accepted a $1,000 legal defense donation from Roscommon International, a lobbying firm operated by Sean M. Reilly. Bonin objected to any suggestion of conflict, saying Reilly had not lobbied Henon directly.
Another $5,000 gift came from a company registered to a Garnet Valley, Pa., home owned by the Pagano family, which owns and operates the Club Risqué chain of strip joints, including a location in the council member’s district. Henon further accepted $10,000 from a Jupiter, Florida-based drug rehab program that does business near his Northeast Philadelphia council district.
Henon’s largest defense fund contribution came in the form of a $15,000 check from Local 542 of the International Union of Operating Engineers. No other unions within the city’s building Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council — led by Henon’s co-defendant John Dougherty — contributed to his legal fund.
Ethics advocates say that regardless of who donates, legal defense funds offer little disclosure on how the money is actually spent.
In Henon’s case, Bonin said a trust had been set up to ensure the funds were spent solely on legal costs. The trust is run by Ward Wright, a sales manager for an organic fertilizer company called EnviroKure, based in the councilman’s district.
Said Bonin: “He’s someone Bobby knows and trusts.”
Johnson raked in smaller contributions from a wider base of donors. Ranging from $50 to $2,500, the gifts came from various individual and groups, including Concerned Citizens of Point Breeze, an anti-gentrification advocacy organization in Johnson’s district; Rasheen Crews, a political consultant who now works as an deputy under Register of Wills Tracey Gordon; and former City Councilmember Bill Greenlee.
WHYY and Billy Penn also identified a handful of registered lobbyists among Johnson’s donation list. Presented with names, the councilmember immediately moved to return funds to those donors “out of an abundance of caution,” said spokesperson Ben Waxman.
Waxman said the total refunds would equal “less than $5,000.”
Are gifts from lobbyists legal? It depends
While business interests and lobbyists are intended to be banned from gifts in Philadelphia, they are still permitted to give to political campaigns, so long as they don’t exceed the annual contribution cap.
Some lobbyists pushed back on these rules, saying the ethical guidelines sent a mixed message.
“Anyone can give to their campaign or defense fund, unless you lobby them, and then you can only give to their campaign,” said lobbyist John Hawkins, who spreads campaign contributions widely among councilmembers but did not contribute to either Henon or Johnson’s defense fund. “Why not instead let them ask anyone for help with their defense, and just ensure that it is all appropriately and transparently disclosed?”
Watchdogs said there was a simpler solution: a total gift ban for politicians and government officials, similar to one imposed by Gov. Tom Wolf on Pennsylvania’s executive branch.
Patrick Christmas, policy director for good government group Committee of Seventy, proposed extending a similar ban across the entirety of the commonwealth.
“This is why a blanket ban on lobbyists giving gifts would be a preferable policy, and one that many are still pressing for our state officials to adopt in Harrisburg,” he said.
Rotman, from watchdog group Common Cause, said that, in addition to lacking a total ban on gifts, Philadelphia also did not have severe enough penalties to deter government officials from skirting the rules in desperate times.
Said Rotman: “There’s a lot of people who would be happy to pay these bills it seems, and any person facing significant criminal action doesn’t have to worry about a letter in their file.”