This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Bill Hangley, Jr.
As Philadelphia digests the scathing report prepared for Mayor Michael Nutter on the political pressure surrounding Martin Luther King’s ill-fated charter, the question becomes what to do with the troubling findings?
The report, written by Nutter’s Chief Integrity Officer, Joan Markman, concluded that last spring, former School Reform Commission Chair Robert Archie helped state Rep. Dwight Evans mount a “sustained back-channel effort” to secure King’s charter, worth a possible $12 million a year, for Evans’ longtime associates at Foundations, Inc.
The report blasted Archie for deeply involving himself in Evans’ behind-the-scenes campaign, despite Archie’s publicly declared conflict of interest in the matter. Markman concluded that Archie and Evans’ actions “compromised” the School District on a number of levels.
But her report does not include any specific recommendations for further action.
Mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said that Nutter was content to leave others to determine if further investigation was needed. “This is a publicly issued report,” he said. “Any agency that might want to take a look at it can and will.”
Nutter indicated that the one thing he’ll push for is more ethics training for SRC members. “The mayor will ask the city’s ethics board to be in touch with the SRC,” said McDonald. “They do have a lot of resources. He will insist that his appointees receive that kind of training.”
Philadelphia’s most prominent good-government watchdog group, the Committee of Seventy, called for additional investigation by Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly and Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
“Philadelphians should be appalled by the report’s picture of backroom dealings and political strong-arming,” said Seventy’s president, Zack Stalberg, in a statement. “And we don’t know the complete story because Dwight Evans refused to cooperate with the investigation. The fact that he didn’t demands further inquiry by someone with subpoena power.”
Conchevia Washington, parent of a King student and chair of its School Advisory Council, praised Markman for her diligence and attention to detail. “She questioned more than 30 people,” Washington said. “It seems to me that she really took this report very seriously.”
But Washington also believes that further investigation from law enforcement is necessary not only to determine whether laws were broken during Archie and Evans’ backroom campaign, but to shed light on the question of why was it so important to Evans and Archie to keep Foundations in place at King.
“So many things still raise questions for me. The bulk of it has been answered, but I still have those questions,” Washington said. “And unless this thing gets to where there’s subpoenas and whatever else, I’m never going to have those answers. There’s still the question of ‘why’, and the people who know why are the ones that are not talking.”
Washington said she wants to know more about what the other three SRC members knew and when.
She’d also like more light shed on the role of Acting Superintendent Leroy Nunery, who, according to Markman’s report, helped Archie organize a pivotal closed-door meetingat District headquarters on March 16, without informing then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman or the rest of the SRC.
“I understand where the mayor is coming from, that there needs to be a review of the ethics policies at the SRC. But that’s not where I think this needs to end,” said Washington. “It’s got to go further, because we are just one example. Prior to us, how much of this kind of stuff has been floating around? I think you have to really question the credibility and the motives of the SRC.”
Like Washington, Stalberg said the report left unanswered questions about the role of the rest of the SRC. Stalberg also questioned the mayor’s decision to withhold the King report until after Archie’s resignation.
McDonald has acknowledged that the mayor had been briefed on the report’s main findings in August, though he said the mayor only received the final report “several days ago.”
“The mayor should have publicly demanded Archie’s resignation as soon as he learned about his chief integrity officer’s findings, which reportedly was some time ago,” said Stalberg. “Instead, he waited until Archie resigned on his own terms and then praised his service. This is not the way someone who calls himself the ‘Education Mayor’ should behave.”
Asked why Nutter did not move earlier to remove Archie, McDonald said the mayor “did not have authority to remove Mr. Archie as chair or as a member.”
Archie and Evans have both challenged the accuracy of Markman’s report. Archie called parts of it “pure fiction” and denied ever attending any meetings at which anyone was “threatened or intimidated.” He slammed many of Markman’s conclusions as “groundless” and “unsubstantiated.”
Archie’s statement included one substantive challenge to Markman’s account. Archie claims that it was Ackerman who persuaded Mosaica Turnaround Partners of Atlanta to withdraw from the King contract, at a dinner immediately following the March 16 closed-door meeting – and that she subsequently told Archie that he should pass that information along to Evans.
Ackerman told Markman a different story – that it was Mosaica executive John Porter’s own decision to withdraw in the wake of the pressure – and Markman’s report, after exploring the conflicting accounts in detail, concludes that Ackerman’s version is more credible.
Ackerman told the Notebook Thursday via email that while she had yet to read the entire report, she stands by her account to Markman, including the aspects contested by Archie.
Markman wrote in the report itself that “whichever version … is correct, the fact remains that what caused Mosaica to withdraw from MLK was the meeting Archie convened … and Evans’ clear communication at that meeting – unimpeded and undiscouraged by Archie, and unreported to his fellow SRC members or Ackerman – that he intended to make it difficult for Mosaica to successfully operate MLK.”
Evans also reacted strongly to the report. “I am stunned the city’s chief integrity officer would craft a document that characterizes me as a puppet master who has the ability to pull strings and make people dance. That is simply not true,” said Evans in a statement published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Evans did not cite any specific inaccuracies in Markman’s account.
McDonald said that Nutter did not plan to speak further about the report or its findings. “He’s provided the report,” McDonald said. “The report speaks for itself.”