Raising Appropriate Questions About the Philadelphia Bug

Marc H. Morial
President and CEO
National Urban League

Early this month, as the Mayor of Philadelphia, John Street, and his challenger, Sam Katz, moved into the final weeks of a hard-fought campaign for City Hall that will be decided November 4, the electoral contest was rocked by news that the federal Department of Justice is conducting a wide-ranging investigation of Philadelphia city agencies, at least one close adviser of the Mayor—and, apparently, Mayor Street himself.

As one Philadelphia newspaper report put it, federal investigators seem to be digging into the entire Philadelphia political system.

Thus far, however, the Justice Department and federal prosecutors in Philadelphia have refused to discuss any aspect of the investigation.

But one thing can be said definitively.

The scope of this investigation into the administration of an African-American Mayor of one of the nation's major cities—and the "leak" about it to the news media so close to election day—raises troubling questions that shadow not merely the election in Philadelphia, but the behavior of the Justice Department, too.

Why did federal investigators place a "sophisticated listening device"—in other words, a bug—in the City Hall office of the Mayor, where Philadelphia police discovered it October 7?

Why have they subpoenaed the financial records of his wife, Naomi Post, eldest son, Sharif, and a major Street advisor and fund-raiser, Ronald A. White?

Why have they subpoenaed thousands of pages of documents from the Philadelphia city finance department, the Philadelphia city treasurer's office, the Philadelphia Minority Business and Enterprise Council, the Philadelphia Municipal Board of Pensions and Retirement, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority?

Why has all this activity occurred as John Street and his challenger, who lost to the Mayor four years ago, came to the final weeks of a close campaign?

Justice Department officials should give full and complete answers to these questions, not least because, given the peculiar and unprecedented timing and tactics of their actions, their own credibility is at stake.

The unseemliness of those actions appears to have galvanized support for the Mayor among the Philadelphia electorate and widened his lead in the polls—a response he attributed in news reports to Philadelphians being "enormously fair, and they don't like it when they see an injustice is happening. People can't figure this out, so therefore they are left to conclude that something funny is probably happening."

Mayor Street has pledged to cooperate with the investigation, but nonetheless sharply criticized its being leaked to the news media, saying that it was "undermining the electoral process."
"I don't like any of this," he has said at campaign rallies, "and I have said from the very beginning that I believe the timing of all this is suspicious."

Others with deep experience in politics have made the same assertions.

Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, who preceded Street as Philadelphia's Mayor, said of the federal probe: "I've never seen anything like this happen on the eve of an election."

Some observers in the national black political community have asserted that the cloudy investigation of the Street Administration seems to follow a pattern common to African-American mayors: aggressive efforts to open the lucrative arena of municipal contracting to African Americans and other people of color has drawn a criticism and legal scrutiny that seems, to say the least, excessive.

Some recall that the late Coleman Young, Detroit's four-term Mayor, was the subject of a federal probe for his entire twenty years in office.

The National Urban League is nonpartisan, and we therefore we take no position on the merits of John Street versus Sam Katz for the office of Mayor of Philadelphia. That's a matter for Philadelphia's voters to decide.

However, I have known John Street professionally for more than twenty years, since he was a young activist member of the Philadelphia city council and I was an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. I later had an opportunity to work with him as a colleague during the late 1990s when, respectively, we served as mayors of New Orleans and Philadelphia.

The John Street that I have witnessed and worked with is above all a dedicated, hard-working, no-nonsense public official whose work by all accounts has had a positive impact on the neighborhoods of Philadelphia. His focus on neighborhoods and community economic development, like ours at the National Urban League, is crucial to the survival and revival of America's cities.

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