Incest has long been taboo among human societies for its propensity to produce deformed and retarded offspring. Among political circles in Philadelphia, however, incest is a cherished, closely-guarded tradition, which might go a long way toward explaining our deformed and retarded government. Like our own little Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, everyone’s in bed together, while our piggy-tailed mess of a city is left to be carried away by ants.
Question: What do City Controller Alan Butkovitz, Councilman Jim Kenney and the Philadelphia Parking Authority all have in common?
They all act with the strictest integrity only in the best interest of city residents? Yes? Haha, sorry, bad joke.
No, all three are connected by their muscular embrace of one Marty O’Rourke, a powerful political consultant who, according to documents obtained under the state’s Right-to-Know law, has raked in well over a million dollars from them and others in the last decade. At least $500,000 of those contracts have been paid for by Philadelphia taxpayers, which is more than enough money for a Marian Tasco DROP payment (but only about half of what we coughed up to make Arlene Ackerman go away).
O’Rourke wears many hats. He does politics. He does public relations and marketing. He tweets. All strictly compartmentalized, mind you, when required by law.
So who cares? Well, the trouble comes with the nature of the offices held by the gentlemen in question. The city controller is responsible for auditing City Council and the PPA. Council makes laws that can affect the PPA and the controller. And the PPA, okay, they just make people’s lives miserable in general. The three are supposed to be separate, and potentially adversarial. The controller in particular needs to maintain a certain distance and skepticism to ensure audits are done fairly, free from favoritism.
However, Butkovitz insists there is no conflict of interest in keeping the same PR guy as the others, and denies that O’Rourke ever gets involved in the audits. “He doesn’t have anything to do with anything to do with preparing statements,” the controller claims. “He’s working as a consultant for media and communications.”
O’Rourke didn’t return phone calls. Nor did Kenney. But the Parking Authority concurred with Butkovitz in their opinion that there’s nothing wrong at all with the cozy arrangement.
“The Parking Authority sees no conflict and Mr. O’ Rourke has done a good job for the Parking Authority,” a PPA spokesperson said in a statement.
There’s the rub. As long as he’s not (officially) involved in the laws and audits that affect his other clients, O’Rourke is free to do business with whomever he pleases. And business is good.
From Kenney, O’Rourke has worked under contracts worth a total of $252,000 since 2001. In his current deal, he earns $175 an hour for services like speechwriting, research and setting up press conferences (view the front page of the contract here). From 2007 through 2009 he also worked for Councilman Brian O’Neill, pulling in a total of $108,000.
From our friendly controller, O’Rouke has landed $140,000 in contracts since 2006—and that’s in addition to at least $108,404.10 that campaign finance records show Butkovitz’s campaign paid to O’Rourke in 2009 when he was serving as the controller’s campaign manager. See? Communications in the office, politics on the stump. He can pivot on a dime.
In the event O’Rourke ever loses his lucrative Council and controller jobs, he can probably still make ends meet since he’s been on a $10,000 per month retainer since 2003 for the Parking Authority, which isn’t funded by tax dollars but is still your money that goes into all those parking meters and tickets. Nice work, if you can get it.
The web gets more tangled. O’Rourke is in a long-term personal relationship with a member of the controller’s senior staff, but Butkovitz denies there’s anything fishy about handing out contracts for $30,000 per year to his staffer’s partner, noting that the pair are not married nor immediate family, so no ethics rules are being broken. “The Ethics Act defines the level of relationships that are regulated,” he says dryly.
It’s a remarkable skill, to be able to navigate what appear to be blatant conflicts of interest, yet never step out of line and break the law. Occasionally there have been brushes with real trouble. Among his other clients, O’Rourke has worked for state Rep. William Keller and disgraced former state House Speaker John Perzel, who is currently awaiting sentencing for public corruption charges. O’Rourke was never officially implicated in Perzel’s problems, but in 2010 his home office in Media was raided by the FBI as part of a campaign spending investigation targeting Keller. Doesn’t look great on the resume, but to date no charges have been filed against the representative and he remains in office. As for O’Rourke? Hasn’t bothered his clients.
“There are extensive federal investigations in Philadelphia right now,” Butkovitz shrugs. “In the absence of information, I just don’t jump to conclusions.”
See, unlike real-life incest, everything on record is perfectly legal as long as the players follow the letter of the law, though buying that line takes a certain suspension of disbelief. Paying a political heavyweight $175 an hour just to run media campaigns and set up press conferences sounds about as believable as a hippopotamus in the Schuylkill.
So is the system rigged or not? Well, Butkovitz was widely panned by his opponents during his 2009 reelection campaign for giving a powder-puff audit to the Parking Authority. And Kenney over the past few years has proposed handing off to the PPA regulation of tow-trucks, vehicle business licenses and private parking lots. Then it was Perzel, of course, who engineered the state takeover of the authority in 2001 and facilitated its massive expansion and forays into red-light cameras, taxi and limousine regulation and the Live Stop towing program. Connect the dots—O’Rourke’s biggest clients all are working to expand or protect the Parking Authority, his best client of all.
But surely, there’s no real collusion here. No conflict of interest, not even as Kenney, Butkovitz, O’Rourke and the PPA perform a cabaret kick line while singing a rousing chorus of “I’m my own grandpa,” while the whole production’s paid for with your money. It’s just business as usual. It’s what we do in Philadelphia.