A new book called "Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting" details the city's history with — and acceptance of — unscrupulous leaders. (Courtesy Brett Mandel)

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When Samuel H. Ashbridge became Philadelphia’s mayor in 1899, he expressed one overarching goal: to “get out of this office all there is in it for Samuel H. Ashbridge.”

The result was what one reform group called “unprecedented” corruption. Ashbridge used the police as political enforcers and awarded electricity, telephone, streetcar, and other contracts to allies, enriching them and himself, and inflating the cost of daily life for residents.

Sure, that was a long time ago, but Ashbridge wasn’t really an outlier. He was just one in a long rogues’ gallery of Philly officials over the past three centuries who have used their authority to steal from the public and subvert political processes, according to a new book by Brett Mandel. 

Who’s to blame for the city’s well-earned reputation for pervasive corruption? 

It’s not just the greedy businessmen and unethical politicians, per Mandel. All Philadelphians are at fault, or at least a lot of us, by way of not caring about — or even embracing — bad behavior, he argues in “Philadelphia, Corrupt and Consenting,” 

“Philadelphians want a hookup and a handout, and we assume that everyone else is hustling for one as well,” Mandel writes in the introduction.

“When someone is caught running afoul of the law, the reaction is less disapproval of the conduct and more an acknowledgement that you can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Mandel is a well-known figure in political and journalism circles, a onetime city controller candidate who led the tax reform group Philadelphia Forward. A resident of Fitler Square, he’s consulted for businesses and government agencies and written books on urban policy and baseball.

His latest work makes the case that corruption, favoritism, and financial mismanagement have sapped the city’s resources and undercut efforts to fight poverty and crime, improve failing schools, and clean up street trash. 

The book is also a history, tracing corruption and anti-corruption efforts since William Penn founded the city in the late 17th century. It covers the outrageously corrupt “ring” politics of the 1800s and recounts, in great detail, the bribery case and convictions of former union leader John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty and former Council member Bobby Henon in 2021.

Mandel himself had a run-in with apparent government misconduct three years ago during a brief stint at the city’s scandal-plagued Sheriff’s Office.  

Brought in as chief financial officer by newly elected Sheriff Rochelle Bilal, who had campaigned as a reformer, he refused to approve “legally problematic” off-budget spending requests and was fired after five weeks. He won a financial settlement from the city and was interviewed by FBI investigators.

“We were coming into office to fix things, to right wrongs, to reform this office that had been the subject of so many scandals and crime, only to be told, ‘You know what, we don’t want to hear it, Brett. We want you to just do what we told you to do,’” Mandel said in an interview. “That was painful. That was frustrating.”

Here’s a sampling of the episodes of corruption Mandel describes in his book.

‘A scar on the fame of our city’

Journalist Lincoln Steffens’ famous 1903 article “Philadelphia: Corrupt and Contented,” is one source for Mandel’s book, including Steffens’ description of Ashbridge, one of the most corrupt mayors in Philly history.

When he was nominated, Ashbridge was $40,000 in debt, but by the time he was elected in 1899 it had been “satisfied.”

The Ashbridge administration used the police as political enforcers, manipulated elections, and awarded public contracts to allies to an “unprecedented” degree, resulting in massive waste and higher costs, according to the Municipal League, a good government group.

Ashbridge also tangled with John Wanamaker, the reform leader and department store pioneer, tossing Wanamaker’s bid for streetcar rights in favor of an associate of top political bosses who paid the city nothing. 

Ashbridge left behind “a scar on the fame and reputation of our city which will be a long time in healing,” the Municipal League said.

A gas scandal that spawned a reform movement 

Ashbridge’s patron was Israel Durham, a Republican political boss who served as police magistrate, state senator, state insurance commissioner and, briefly, president of the Phillies.

Toward the end of his career, Durham “launched one last grand scheme to provide for his final years and reward the party faithful,” Mandel writes.

He proposed giving a 75-year lease to the United Gas Improvement Company, which was run by a friend of his, to run the city’s gas works. It would provide a large lump sum payment Durham could use to give contracts to his friends’ firms, while giving United Gas a huge discount on the lease. The city would lose nearly $900 million in profits compared to its earnings under the previous lease.

The city’s Select Council quickly moved to approve the plan without competitive bidding. But a newly formed anti-fraud group, the Committee of Seventy, protested the deal, as did newspapers and citizens. 

There was a 5,000-person demonstration and protests outside councilmembers’ homes, forcing Durham to withdraw the agreement.

Turnout surged in the 1905 election. Machine candidates were defeated, and the Pa. General Assembly codified several reforms, including voter registration by individuals instead of machine partisans, a strengthened civil service code, and filing requirements for campaign receipts.

The 1920s boondoggle that created the wage tax

The 1926 Sesqui-Centennial, a world’s fair celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, was a disaster. 

“Constant rain and oppressive heat kept crowds away, but political infighting, mismanagement, and corrupt administration made the event a once-in-a-generation boondoggle,” Mandel writes. “Sweetheart deals and fat contracts were doled out to connected contracts; even the mayor’s brother and wife were linked to Sesqui-Centennial corruption.”

The city lost nearly $10 million on the fair, the equivalent of $106 million today.

“Contractors charged the city to excavate dirt to build the Broad Street subway line and then turned around and sold it back to the city to fill the swampy South Philadelphia Sesqui grounds,” the book explains.

The city lost nearly $10 million on the fair, the equivalent of $106 million today. The organizers declared bankruptcy, the city was “besieged by lawsuits,” and it spent the rest of the decade cleaning up the financial wreckage.

Mandel argues that the building boom of the period, which also included the Ben Franklin Bridge, the Museum of Art, and other landmarks, so stressed the city budget that in 1939 Philly became the first American city to impose what was supposed to be a “temporary” wage tax.

Like something out of ‘The Godfather’

One of many modern-day scandals Mandel recounts involved then-state Rep. Dwight Evans, who now serves in Congress.

In 2011 the School Reform Commission wanted to take a charter school, Martin Luther King High School, away from Foundations Inc., which had failed to improve the school’s poor academic performance over several years.

The SRC decided to hand control over to Mosaica, a Georgia-based company. But Evans, who had received thousands of dollars in donations from Foundations, worked to block the deal.

After the SRC vote, Evans met with then-Deputy Superintendent Leroy Nunery II and Mosaica official John Porter, according to a subsequent city investigation. Evans said he wouldn’t work with the company and it would get in the way of his plans for education in the area, The Inquirer reported.

“Immediately after that meeting, Nunery described it to [then-Superintendent Arlene] Ackerman…as like something out of the movie ‘The Godfather,’” the report said. Porter was “in shock” and Mosaica pulled out the next day.

After WHYY and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook reported on the secret meeting, Foundations also withdrew from the deal. Evans, meanwhile, denied wrongdoing and said he was “stunned” that he had been characterized as a “puppet master,” per the Inquirer.

More mayoral mischief: Rendell is ‘outraged’ and Street’s bugged by the FBI

Mandel describes several recent mayors who have shrugged at allegations of corrupt behavior or even seemed to endorse them. 

→ In 2009 state Sen. Vince Fumo was convicted of secretly pressuring Verizon to hand over more than $50 million to a charity he controlled, to his family’s bank, and to his law firm. The response from former mayor and governor Ed Rendell? “Gosh, I’m outraged that I didn’t think of it first,” according to an academic paper Mandel quotes.

Rendell also said of Fumo, “You can quarrel about his methods but he is not the first legislator and government official to squeeze [a corporation] when he thought it would benefit the public.”

“Gosh, I’m outraged that I didn’t think of it first.”

Ed Rendell

→ Mayor John Street’s office was famously bugged by the FBI and several people connected to him went to jail for corruption. Street once said, “The people who support me in the general election have a greater chance of getting business from my administration than the people who support [my opponent].” 

When asked about the favors received by his top donors, he said, “Anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that’s the way it works is either a liar or thinks you’re really stupid.”

→ Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration stressed ethics in government, per Mandel. But when City Representative Melanie Johnson spent thousands from the Mayor’s Fund on personal expenses, Nutter overruled a recommendation that she be fired, saying the spending was “not inappropriate or improper.” 

Johnson was succeeded by Desiree Peterkin-Bell, who was later found to have misspent $225,000 from the Mayor’s Fund. She pleaded guilty to spending nearly $20,000 on personal expenses and was sentenced to house arrest, probation, and restitution payments.

→ As for Mayor Jim Kenney, Mandel suggests he might never have run for the top job if not for encouragement from Dougherty. The labor leader went on to orchestrate millions in fundraising to support Kenney’s mayoral bid.

After Dougherty and Henon were charged, Kenney said, “I’m sad for them and their families. They have a long road to go and it’s going to be tough for them.” When they were convicted?

“I feel bad,” Kenney said, “for the fact that they work really hard in bringing a lot of good things to the city.”

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Meir Rinde is an investigative reporter at Billy Penn covering topics ranging from politics and government to history and pop culture. He’s previously written for PlanPhilly, Shelterforce, NJ Spotlight,...