It was a pivotal moment in modern Philadelphia history - a listening device found in the sitting mayor’s office.
The devices’ discovery swayed an election. 12 years ago FBI special agent J.J. Klaver planted two listening devices in then mayor John Streets’ office.
It was less than one month before an election. Street was down in the polls to Republican Sam Katz.
The FBI was investigating a pay for play scheme involving city contracts and had worked for months to listen in on conversations inside Street’s office.
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“Our rouse if you will, was we were doing a security survey post 9-11," Klaver said of how he and his team first snuck into Street’s office to draft a map for planning purposes.
“I wanted to see what did the mayor’s office looked like,” he said. “Did it have a drop ceiling? What was the furniture? Did it have any alarms? Things like that.”
On Saturday, September 20, 2003 Klaver and two other agents snuck into city hall and broke into Streets’ office.
Once inside Klaver put one listening device in the drop ceiling above a couch. The other he placed in a table in front of the window.
“We were wrapping up getting everything installed and we got word from the surveillance teams that the mayor was on the move and might be heading back toward city hall,” Klaver said.
It was nearly midnight but Street was headed back to his office from a fundraiser. Klaver says the agents got out just in time.
“We were walking out of one entrance of city hall and he was walking in another,” Klaver said.
At the time Klaver said he was one of only a few people who knew the mayor’s office was bugged. Klaver said he planted dozens of listening devices throughout his career. He said only one was ever found.
Philadelphia police found the bug in the ceiling on October 7th2003.
“There was a possibility that we could have gone in and removed our equipment, but a decision was made higher than me, to not do that,” Klaver said.
Street, his staff and Democrats from across the country used the bug’s discovery as a political opportunity, blaming the Bush White House for trying to influence the election by bugging the mayor’s office.
“I knew the truth,” Klaver said. “I knew it was preposterous to say the White House ordered us to bug a sitting mayor’s office but I couldn’t come out and say it was preposterous.”
“I thought we were going to win,” Street’s opponent Sam Katz said. “I thought it was the nail in the coffin.”
Katz was up in polls before the bug’s discovery. He would lose the 2003 election.
“I went from being up six in our polls to down 14 having barely moved my lips,” Katz said.
“What’s probably more disappointing to me personally than the actual device being found is the effect it had on the mayoral election,” Klaver said. “I wish it had never been found. If I could go back in time and do it differently, I would.”
The FBI did secure 24 convictions in its “pay to play” investigation, but the bug in Streets’ office never picked up any information used in trial. Mayor street was never charged.
The convictions led to sweeping political reforms including campaign contribution limits and the city’s board of ethics.
Former Philadelphia mayor John street declined to be interviewed for this story.