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Philadelphia’s small but mighty Board of Ethics is again proving its mettle in recent weeks.
The board sued dark-money super PAC “For a Better Philadelphia” after collecting a trove of evidence indicating illegal coordination with mayoral candidate Jeff Brown and his campaign. A court has yet to rule on the matter, but if proven, the PAC and its associated nonprofit could face a six-figure fine, the largest since the Board was created in 2006.
But more than $22 million has been spent so far in the mayoral race. Do ethics officials have the resources and tools they need to follow every dollar?
The rules are working, but loopholes remain
Philadelphia has among the strictest regulations in the country governing money in politics, most of which were put on the books just 20 years ago. Championed by the Committee of Seventy, the city’s campaign finance law put in place contribution limits and disclosure requirements that go far beyond the state’s notoriously lax rules.
To its credit, our Ethics Board has worked with City Council on numerous occasions to strengthen the law, especially in the years following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates for super PACs to spend unlimited sums to influence elections (as long as the spending is independent of candidates). The board’s recent lawsuit is a case in point on what’s working.
However, in addition to raising $3 million through six-figure contributions, the For a Better Philadelphia PAC took extraordinary measures to hide donors’ identities by funneling money through a nonprofit. Even the city’s already enhanced transparency rules aren’t enough. They need to be extended further to shine needed sunlight on these dark money groups and the nonprofit workaround.
Philadelphians deserve to know who is spending money to influence their votes.
Fully fund the Ethics Board
In addition to campaign finance, the Philadelphia Board of Ethics is responsible for enforcing laws regarding lobbying, conflicts of interest, gifts, political activity and financial disclosure, making for a broad terrain covered by a remarkably small but capable staff team.
These officials wear multiple hats — attorney, data analyst, social media manager — making a terrific return on investment for taxpayers. But for a city that still has a notorious reputation for corruption, public integrity can’t be given short shrift.
The Ethics Board has endured flat funding for most of its tenure. It was allocated an original budget of about $1 million, and after some fluctuations, that’s where it stands now, even while its scope of responsibility and the complexity of our public-integrity regulations have grown to match the evolving risks posed by special interests.
People running for mayor and City Council should commit to properly resourcing the board to protect the public interest.
Every tool should be on the table
Committee of Seventy advocates in its Democracy Agenda for an extension of the city’s pay-to-play rules to cover numerous types of business matters that come before city officials, especially when councilmanic prerogative is involved.
But the money flooding this election should also reignite discussion of whether taxpayer dollars are needed to amplify the impact of regular voters who can’t write big checks.
New York City’s public financing system, for example, has been successful in encouraging candidates to seek the support of small-dollar donors and diversify their funding base away from well-heeled PACs. Such reform comes with a price tag — and an argument can be made that taxes shouldn’t fund political campaigns, but without the legal means to block the invasion of super PACs, this is a debate worth having.
For now, we applaud the Ethics Board for fighting with every tool at its disposal. Since its founding, the members and staff of this independent agency have performed their jobs with the utmost integrity and Philadelphia is all the better for their vigilance.
Let’s make sure they have what they need to continue protecting all of us.