Depending on who you ask in Philadelphia’s affluent suburban counties, local solicitorship appointments are based on relationships of trust, shared history, and a track record of quality legal work for municipal governments – or they’re deeply intertwined in a web of establishment Democrats with local political influence and municipal contracts for sale.
Reformers argue this process provides ample opportunity for those holding public office to unfairly cash in on their political connections and influence — a “pay-to-play” practice that has been refined and perfected by generations of politicians since the inception of governance.
The average voter does not pay much attention to the appointment of solicitors. It’s fair to say that the topic is not especially interesting or accessible to those outside of the local political arena, or those who don’t stand to benefit professionally or financially from it.
But make no mistake – the appointment of local solicitors can be shady business.
The potential for political graft in appointing municipal solicitorships uncomplicated, but effective. Essentially, public officials can legally steer government contracts toward their campaign donors. This means that if a law firm donates to a politician running for local office, such as town council, school board, or even state representative, that politician (once elected) can then choose a lawyer from the donating law firm to serve as solicitor to the local government. Solicitor contracts are often quite lucrative.
That’s not the only way to make money from government legal work. Many elected officials who are also lawyers by trade serve as “of counsel” at these law firms and leverage their government contacts to bring the affiliate firm new clients. They are compensated for bringing in new taxpayer-funded business. Lawyer-politicians in these jobs rarely show up in court or draft legal documents. Rather they are typically commissioned sales people in an industry where the lines between politics, policy, the public good, and profit are murky.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Andrew Siedmann writes on the intersection between business and political power in the region. He delved into how the politics of the most affluent county in the commonwealth, Montgomery County, has evolved since the Democratic Party took the reins of power a decade ago. The piece reveals a party dominated by lawyer-politicians who have built a “pay-to-play culture in which the line between business and politics is often blurred”.
This is foreboding for other suburban counties that more recently flipped to Democratic control in the wake of strong anti-Trump sentiment and cultural destabilization in the region. Their new political leaders quickly adopted a culture that suburban Democrats had complained about for decades. They spent years begging suburban voters to support Democratic reformers committed to putting an end to allegedly corroded and corrupt Republican political machines doling out government contracts to their friends at great expense to the taxpayer.
Now, they’ve won. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
For instance, Delaware County Democrats Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden, who were both elected to county council in 2017, campaigned almost exclusively on the issue of corruption, calling it a “corruption tax.” Democrats finally took control of Delaware County in 2019 and, as Broad + Liberty reported last week, county spending on outside law firms, many of which are obviously politically connected, has risen eightfold in four years.
Interestingly, the administrative code was amended to compel county contractors to disclose their reportable political contribution history for the previous 24-months, law firms, however, are exempt.
As it turns out, corruption isn’t a problem for these so-called reformers — as long as it flows to Democrats.
While the situation Seidman describes in Montgomery County is not criminal, it warrants a closer look. Now that Democrats have held office for several years, is the county political machine any more ethical than it was before? Reformers in the county Democratic Party argue it’s not, and at the center of the controversy is the law firm, Rudolph Clarke LLC.
Rudolph Clarke retains three Montgomery County state legislators, including House Majority Leader Matt Bradford, a Bucks County state senator and Democratic Party chairman and, until recently, former Delaware County state representative Mike Zabel, who resigned earlier this year amid sexual harassment allegations. The firm is a major contributor to Montgomery County Democrats’ campaigns at the state and local levels, and has demonstrated a particular expertise at flipping local boards to Democratic control over the past several election cycles.
So what do Rudolph Clarke’s partners ask for in return? According to the firm’s managing partner, Michael Clarke, a self-described “good Democrat”, the firm simply says that they’d like to participate in any processes in which local officials are accepting business proposals from local firms.
As it happens, the local officials Rudolph Clarke helps get elected routinely give the firm business in Montgomery County and beyond.
As it stands, Michael Clarke himself is currently the solicitor for Abington Township, Falls Township, Lower Providence Township, Plymouth Township, Whitpain Township, Newtown Borough, North Wales Water Authority, Borough of Conshohocken Authority, Whitemarsh Township Authority, Delaware County Solid Waste Authority, Borough of Conshohocken Zoning Hearing Board, Newtown Township Zoning Hearing Board, William Jeanes Memorial Library, Spring Mill Fire Company No. 1, Norristown Area School District, Bucks County Solicitor’s Office, Bucks County Tax Claim Bureau, Morrisville Economic Development Corporation, Montgomery County Orphans Court and Register of Wills, Montgomery County Tax Claim Bureau, Pennsylvania State Association of County Controllers, Lycoming County Controller’s Office, and Washington County Controller’s Office.
Apparently, the experience of those who’ve rejected Rudolph Clarke’s proposals might make any politically ambitious Democrat looking to gain favor with the county party think twice about choosing a different solicitor, as was the case with Danielle Duckett, a township supervisor and policy director for State Rep. Chris Rabb, who did just that in Lower Gwynedd. According to Seidmen, when she sought a seat on the county board of commissioners, the Montgomery County Democratic Committee rescinded their support in favor of Bradford acolyte Jamila Winder. Winder is a former Norristown Area School Board member. Rudolph Clarke is solicitor to the Norristown Area School Board. Bradford is of counsel to Rudolph Clark. Go figure.
Because state lawmakers are only required to disclose the source of their outside income and not the amount, it’s impossible to say exactly how much Bradford has earned from leveraging his House leadership perch to pad his payday – his legislative aide reportedly did not respond to follow-up questions from the Inquirer about his compensation from the firm.
Rudolph Clarke hires politicians, gets more politicians elected, and reaps the benefits in government contracts. In recent votes over school choice, Bradford and others associated with the firm took it a step farther, working to deny competition to local school boards – boards they helped to elect and from which they continue to profit. They protect their clients and protect each other – as Bradford did when he and Democratic leadership kept people in the dark about the sexual harassment claims against his fellow legislator (and fellow Rudolph Clarke lawyer-politician “of counsel”) Mike Zabel.
The conflict is clear: double-dipping legislators like Bradford can’t serve both the people and their clients.
Our state constitution already bans any member “who has a personal or private interest in any measure or bill proposed or pending before the General Assembly” from voting on it, but without more detailed disclosures, it’s basically an honor system.
Ethics reform is clearly needed. The legislature should require that members disclose the precise source of their income – which, in the case of lawyers, should include the exact amounts received in origination pay for each client they brought into the firm. Let the people see who pays for their representatives’ side jobs.
Will Republicans take up this effort to drain the swamp? They should, if they want to stop the corrupt business as usual in Harrisburg. Will Democrats join them and be the reformers they promised to be, or just a different set of pigs at the trough?
Broad + Liberty is a nonprofit media endeavor dedicated to sharing voices and stories that are shut out of other media outlets. @BroadAndLiberty