Incest has long been taboo among human societies for its propensity to produce deformed offspring. Among political circles in Philadelphia, however, incest is a cherished, closely guarded tradition, which might go a long way toward explaining our deformed government. Like our own little Gabriel García Márquez novel, everyone’s in bed together, while our 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?
Sorry, bad joke.
No, all three are connected by their muscular embrace of one Martin O’Rourke, a powerful political consultant who, according to documents obtained under the state’s Right-to-Know law, has raked in well over $1 million 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, and Council makes laws that can affect the PPA and the city controller. And the PPA, OK, 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.
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 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 wrote in an email.
There’s the rub. As long as O’Rourke is not (officially) involved in the laws and audits that affect his other clients, he 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, records show. In his current deal, he earns $175 an hour for services like speech writing, research and setting up press conferences. From 2007 through 2009, he also worked for Councilman Brian O’Neill, pulling in a total of $108,000.
From our friendly controller, records show O’Rourke 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; he has been on a $10,000-a-month retainer for the Parking Authority since 2003. That’s not funded by tax dollars but it’s 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.
There have been occasional brushes with real trouble. Among his other clients, O’Rourke has worked for state Rep. William Keller and 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, who remains in office. As for O’Rourke? None of this has 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.”
Employees in City Controller Alan Butkovitz's office are walking on eggshells after two separate incidents in recent months involving the use of naughty words resulted in the firing of one auditor and the investigation of another dozen employees.