Next year, members of the Philadelphia City Council will consider a bill designed to prevent vested interests from gaining influence on the council by employing lawmakers through side jobs outside of their official duties. .
But there is another loophole in the city’s ethical laws for those who might secretly hope to influence Council members. Unlike lawmakers in other cities and states, as well as members of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration, Philadelphia council members are not required to disclose their spouses’ sources of income.
“Instead of offering favors or gifts directly to a candidate, it is possible to give these things to someone the chosen one cares about,” said Khalif Ali, executive director of the good government group Common Cause PA. “This is what I call a potential loophole.”
The issue of compensation for members’ spouses is expected to be at the center of the bribery trial early next year by board member Kenyatta Johnson. Prosecutors accused him of accepting a bribe in the form of consulting work at a charter school for his wife in exchange for helping a group in his district secure a zoning change .
The possibility for Johnson to take official steps to secure a job for his wife also surfaced in the bribery trial this fall of board member Bobby Henon. There, prosecutors made a taped phone call in 2016 in which Henon told former Electricians Union leader John J. Dougherty that Johnson might need a “little, kind, hug” to accept the tax. Kenney on sugary drinks, which the union supported.
“Tell him that once you get this stuff, there will be a ton of big league jobs that his wife [is] more than qualified for, ”replied Dougherty.
Henon and Dougherty were sentenced.
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Johnson, who declined to comment on the evidence, is on trial with his wife, Dawn Chavous, in February. They pleaded not guilty and noted that Chavous has been working on charter school issues for a long time.
Each year, council members complete two financial disclosure forms, one required by state law and one required by the city’s code of ethics. Senior officials in recent municipal administrations have also been required to complete a third form, established by decree, which requires more information, including sources of income for spouses.
Mayors cannot require independent elected officials such as council members to use the administrative form, but council could amend the Code of Ethics to strengthen reporting requirements for lawmakers.
The bill that council member Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced after Henon’s verdict – limiting lawmakers to $ 25,000 in income from other jobs each year – would also require members to disclose more details about their jobs. outside.
There is currently no proposal to add spousal income to disclosure forms, but several members have said they will support such a change.
At least 38 states have laws requiring lawmakers to disclose the income sources of their spouses and, in many cases, dependent children, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Members of Congress are also subject to strict controls over the financial activity of members of their household, said Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, head of government affairs at Project on Government Oversight.
He called the lack of similar demands on city council a “pretty glaring giant loophole”, noting that it’s also more difficult to keep up with the interests of lawmakers at the city level “because you don’t have so many eyes. and as many guard dogs “.
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Although Philadelphia and Pennsylvania do not require an annual declaration of spouse’s income, laws regulating gifts to public officials and conflicts of interest can be triggered based on the actions of household members.
Johnson is the only council member who has been charged with wrongdoing related to work being done by a member of the household. But other members have spouses with jobs that have come close to Council work.
City Councilor Helen Gym, whose husband is an attorney for pharmaceutical company AmerisourceBergen, voted against a 2019 bill opposed by drugmakers that would have regulated pharmaceutical representatives by registering them with the city and enforcing them. signaling their gifts to doctors.
Former council member Bill Greenlee, who drafted the bill in response to the city’s opioid crisis, said his defeat was the most crushing moment of his council career. Greenlee said he never understood why Gym, a progressive keen on defending corporate interests, opposed it.
Greenlee noted that the pharmaceutical industry has lobbied heavily against it. He only heard about Gym’s husband’s work in the pharmaceutical industry after the bill was passed 9-5, although he said he was not speculating that the two were related.
“She never really explained why she was against it,” he said. “I never understood why someone was against it. It was a surprise. “
In a statement, Gym noted that only five members voted for the proposal and that she and others “had significant concerns about the bill,” including the ability of the Department of Public Health to apply.
“I support a universal ban on gifts,” she said, “but I opposed the bill’s requirement that the Department of Health use its resources to authorize each visiting sales agent and review all its sales material. “
Gym said she was in favor of board members disclosing their spouses’ sources of income, as did board member Isaiah Thomas, whose wife recently started working for Perry Media Group, a relationship company. public whose clients include the Delaware River Port Authority and the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency.
“Any kind of disclosure, outside income limits – none of that bothers me,” Thomas said in an interview. “Whatever steps we need to take to make sure the public has that confidence in their elected officials, that’s what I’m for. “
The most common concern with such a requirement is that public reports on spousal employment could discourage people from leaving public service for fear of putting their families under the microscope.
“Being the spouse of someone in the public service is hard enough,” said Quiñones-Sánchez, whose husband, Tómas Sánchez, is a Temple University executive who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the State Senate in 2014.
Quiñones-Sánchez’s husband is currently working on a development project in his district, she said, and the couple have taken steps to ensure there is no conflict of interest with their job. Earlier in her career on Council, she asked her husband to sell rental properties that were in his name in part to avoid ethical dilemmas.
“We got rid of everything,” she said.