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A Bug Worsens the Fever Pitch of Politics in Philadelphia

October 12, 2003|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — He's launched a war on urban blight, negotiated deals for two new stadiums and presided over a drop in crime. John Street, Philadelphia's Democratic mayor, should be cruising to reelection in a city where his party holds a huge registration edge and voters haven't elected a Republican mayor in five decades.

But Street is in a fight for his political life, rocked by revelations that the FBI planted a bug in his City Hall office as part of a wide-ranging investigation of alleged city corruption. And a mayoral race that was already clouded by charges of racist campaigning has become an ugly free-for-all in the nation's fifth-largest city.

As the controversy escalates, Street's allies have suggested that the bugging -- discovered less than four weeks before the Nov. 4 election -- is an effort by the Bush White House to unseat Philadelphia's African American mayor. GOP officials have strongly denied the charge, saying that federal investigations of City Hall have been going on for several years.

Street, a former city councilman, is running against Sam Katz, a white Republican businessman, in a rematch of their bitter 1999 battle. The mayor won that race by fewer than 10,000 votes in a contest where voters were divided largely along racial lines. Recent polls show this year's election to be a virtual dead heat.

"Philadelphia is known for rough politics, but this year's election is in a class by itself," said James "Jimmy" Tayoun, a newspaper publisher and former city councilman who served 40 months in prison for corruption. "Who ordered the bugging in the mayor's office? What are they looking for? Nobody has the answers."

With election day drawing near, voters would normally be wrangling over housing construction, high local employment taxes, a dwindling population base and other issues confronting the city of 1.5 million. Although Street's administration has made gains in battles against open-air drug markets and declining schools, Katz has accused him of running a corrupt, patronage-driven office.

A proud, reserved man whom critics call arrogant and aloof, Street had seemed serenely confident of victory several weeks ago. But the disclosures about the FBI bug have blocked out all other issues, throwing the election into an uproar.

"The bugging has become the central issue in this election, but it remains shrouded in mystery because federal investigators won't discuss any specifics about the reasons for the probe," said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Millersville University, a state-run campus located about an hour outside Philadelphia. "Until somebody tells us what it's all about, this becomes a real disservice -- to the candidates and to the people who have to vote."

Police discovered the bug last week during a routine security sweep of Street's office. The sophisticated listening device, which contained several microphones, was capable of broadcasting to receivers in another building or a parked van, according to Street campaign officials. It is not known how long the device had been in place.

U.S. Atty. Patrick Meehan, who represents the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, has refused to discuss any ongoing investigation. Although federal officials have previously said that the investigation is unrelated to the current mayoral campaign, they have resisted calls from Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and other state politicians to shed more light on the puzzling controversy.

Earlier this year, federal investigators acknowledged that they are probing possible municipal corruption in the awarding of a $13-million contract for Philadelphia airport maintenance to a company with links to Street's brother, Milton. Federal agents have also been looking into alleged traffic-ticket fixing at City Hall.

Street said his attorney has told him that he is not the target of any federal investigation -- that is, someone who is likely to be indicted. But the mayor has not said whether he may be the subject of an investigation -- someone whose conduct in office could fall within the scope of a grand jury investigation. Federal investigators confirmed late Friday that Street is, in fact, a subject of their inquiry.

The sudden onset of scandal -- real or not -- has shaken Street's normally cool demeanor. Minutes after his first televised debate with Katz last week, for example, he was cornered by a pack of shouting reporters in an anteroom at Drexel University, where the event took place. As nervous aides sought to cut the session short, Street mopped sweat off his brow and tried to remain calm in a cross-fire of questions:

"When did you find out about the bug?" reporters asked. "Why don't you tell us everything you know?" "Are you the subject of an investigation?" "Is there corruption in your office?" "How can people trust you if your office is being investigated?"

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