Strict Standards: Declaration of C_DataMapper_Driver_Base::define() should be compatible with C_Component::define($context = false) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/datamapper/class.datamapper_driver_base.php on line 609
Strict Standards: Declaration of C_DataMapper_Driver_Base::initialize() should be compatible with C_Component::initialize() in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/datamapper/class.datamapper_driver_base.php on line 609
Strict Standards: Declaration of C_Displayed_Gallery_Mapper::define() should be compatible with C_CustomPost_DataMapper_Driver::define($object_name, $context = false) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/nextgen_gallery_display/class.displayed_gallery_mapper.php on line 4
Strict Standards: Declaration of C_Displayed_Gallery_Mapper::initialize() should be compatible with C_CustomPost_DataMapper_Driver::initialize($object_name) in /nas/content/live/axisphilly/wp-content/plugins/nextgen-gallery/products/photocrati_nextgen/modules/nextgen_gallery_display/class.displayed_gallery_mapper.php on line 4
The year was 1978. Jimmy Carter was president of the United States; the Chevy Impala was America’s top-selling car; Laverne and Shirley was the No. 1 show in the Neilson ratings and Pennsylvania was carried kicking and screaming into the 20th century.
In a fit of pre-Election Day reform, the legislature passed the first ethics law in the state’s history. It had two main parts: Guidelines for behavior of public officials and a financial disclosure provision for elected officials and candidates.
Thirty-four years have passed and the financial disclosure portion of the law looks a lot like … well, like a ’78 Impala that has been parked outside too long.
To summarize its shortcomings: The disclosure provisions disclose very little. No dollar amounts need be included. There are huge omissions in what must be revealed. Let’s put it this way: if you tried to get a loan based on the information required in the state’s Statement of Financial Interests they would laugh you out of the bank.
Over the years, in vetting the background of candidates for public office, I have found the statement to be virtually worthless.
Have you ever filed for bankruptcy? The statement does not require that you disclose it. In the last local election cycle I found three candidates, including Republican mayoral candidate Karen Brown, who had gone in and out of bankruptcy.
Have you ever been convicted of a crime? Go apply for a job and it’s one of the standard questions on an application. Not for Pennsylvania candidates. No disclosure required. This explains how Warren Bloom got on the ticket as a candidate for Traffic Court this year. In 1992, Bloom pleaded guilty to a morals charge involving a 14-year-old cousin.
Have you ever been disciplined by a regulatory body? No disclosure required. I found a case looking through other records. Robert Tuerk, a lawyer running for Traffic Court this year, had his license suspended by the disciplinary board of the state Supreme Court in 1994 because he failed to disclose a prior arrest on his bar application. He was reinstated in 2001.
Have you been a tax deadbeat and failed to pay your property taxes? No disclosure required, unless the amount is in excess of $7,500 and a lien has been placed on the property by a government entity. This year, I found a half-dozen candidates on the ballots who are overdue on their taxes, but they did not disclose it — and were not required to — because of the absence of a lien.
Has the bank ever foreclosed because of failure to pay your mortgage? No disclosure required. In fact, the law does not even require you to list your home as an asset. Fran Shields, who is running for Municipal Court, did have the bank foreclose on his home in 2011. His credit card company also went to court in 2012 to collect $16,169 it was owed.
When I talked to Shields last week, he said he had gone through some financial distress and it was true the bank had foreclosed and the credit card company went to court to collect back payments due. He said he has worked out arrangements to pay.
None of this “financial distress” was listed on his disclosure form. “I listed it the way I thought I was supposed to list it,” he said. “If you think I should list it another way, I’ll be happy to do so.”
I told him: No. You are right. You are not required to list any of this.
Some candidates — make that a very few candidates — err on the side of disclosing more. They add an addendum to the one-page Statement of Financial Disclosure that list their investments and holdings in more detail. Most do not.
They stick to the narrow confines of disclosure as required of the law and not one iota more.
Take the case of Frank Bennett, a candidate for Municipal and Common Pleas Court in the May 21 primary. Bennett, a lawyer who is also a Realtor, owns a property on the 1000 block of East Howell Street in Lawncrest that had a lien placed on it by the city in 2011 for non-payment of $7,888 in real estate taxes.
I called Bennett last week to ask what was what.
My reading of the law was that he should have disclosed that lien as a debt to the city of Philadelphia. His reading was that since he now had an agreement with the city to repay the taxes and the debt had fallen below the $7,500 threshold he did not have to disclose.
Serve and volley. Serve and volley. This verbal tennis game went back and forth on that issue until I brought up another: a property on the 2600 block of East Harold Street in Kensington. A bank moved to foreclose last year due to non-payment of a $76,304 mortgage. Bennett and his wife were listed as defendants, along with another couple.
Not only did he fail to list the foreclosure, he failed to list the property as an asset on his state disclosure form.
Serve and volley. Serve and volley. Bennett unfurled a complicated tale of how he was helping out the woman, who was the true owner, by taking over ownership of the house at one point but had subsequently signed the deed over to her.
Well, I said, she is listed as a defendant, but you are, too.
Give me that [Court] ID number, he said.
I gave it to him and he tapped it into the court computer system, which brought up the case. He saw he was listed as a defendant.
But I signed over the deed to her, he said.
I said: You may have, but all I can go by is the public record and you are listed as a defendant.
“I thought I was fairly clear, but if this is confusing to you maybe clarity needs to come,” he said. “What I might do is send off to the [ethics board] maybe a one-sheet. Maybe just do an amendment.”
When the disclosure law first went into effect, it did have a sharp set of teeth. The penalty for failing to fully disclose what was required was removal from the ballot. For a while, opposing candidates played a game of “gotcha,” looking into each other’s financial holdings and blowing the whistle on an opponent if he or she failed to follow the letter of the law. The courts did remove candidates from the ballot, some for minor omissions.
Lately, though, the courts have softened that stand, in effect deciding to overlook omissions, allowing amendments, and leaving the decision to the voters. The disclosure requirements — weak to begin with — have been further weakened by the judiciary.
Why should we care about this? So what if someone had a rough patch in their life and fell behind in payments to their bank or the city tax people? The Philadelphia Bar Association can answer that question.
In evaluating judicial candidates it uses a number of criteria; one of them is financial responsibility.
To quote the bar’s guidelines: “The demonstrated financial responsibility of a candidate is one of the factors to be considered …Whether there have been judgments or liens or bankruptcy proceedings instituted by or against a candidate and whether the candidate has promptly and properly filed all required tax returns may be relevant…Financial responsibility demonstrates self-discipline and the ability to withstand pressures which might compromise independence and impartiality.”
Somebody say Amen.