Union carpenter Bob Brady has spent 30 years running Philadelphia's Democratic machine, and 20 years in Congress, watching a string of local party leaders go to prison.
A Justice Department memo in a brewing criminal case hints at the way he wields power.
Brady's camp gave a city judge who challenged him in the 2012 primary $90,000 to quit the race, according to the plea memo, unsealed Wednesday after the judge's campaign aide pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws. And Brady himself tried to "influence" a witness in the case, according to prosecutors, who said they filed the case under seal for fear he would "corrupt(ly)" pressure the aide not to cooperate.
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Corruption cases large and small have dogged Philadelphia Democrats during Brady's tenure as party boss.
Eleven-term congressman Chaka Fattah and his son are both in federal prison for improperly enriching themselves with public or private funds. Two-term District Attorney Seth Williams awaits sentencing for living beyond his means with help from friends seeking favors.
Former statehouse powerbroker Vincent Fumo served more than four years in prison for using state senate funds or — in his words — "OPM," or "other people's money," to renovate his mansion, commander museum yachts and to spy on his ex-wife. By one press account, more than 30 Philadelphia Democrats have been investigated since 2000 — with barely a peep from the boss.
Brady's lawyer bristles at talk his client should be tarred by the lapses. Brady is "damned if he does and damned if he doesn't" when it comes to managing the slate of candidates, lawyer James Eisenhower said.
"If he could say who could run, they'd say he's an old-fashioned party boss. With a modern party boss, ... candidates run and win independent of the party chair. Then they say he's not exercising enough oversight," Eisenhower said.
He denies that Brady tried to obstruct the FBI probe of the money Brady's campaign gave Judge Jimmie Moore in 2012, noting that candidates routinely swallow up the campaign debt of vanquished foes for the sake of party unity.
"Judge Moore decided to get out of the race, based on his own calculation that he couldn't win. He did ask the congressman if he could relieve some of his campaign debt," Eisenhower said. "Congressman Brady has done nothing wrong here."
Brady had nearly a half-million war chest, and Moore only a few thousand, when Moore met with Brady in February 2012 and agreed to step aside. So Brady bought some of Moore's campaign assets — not the office furniture, but a year-old poll that included data on Brady's potential strengths and vulnerabilities.
Prosecutors say the money paid not for a stale poll, but for Moore to step aside. They say Moore's campaign aide and then-fiance, Carolyn Cavaness, set up a sham company to receive the money after it was funneled through two political consultants. She also got a job with Brady.
Cavaness now faces up to five years in prison after pleading guilty to concealing the payments on Moore's campaign finance reports. She was not charged with conspiracy, and no one else has been charged. But Moore, at least, has signed a "tolling agreement" that waives the five-year statute of limitations, should it be an issue for prosecutors — until at least Nov. 30, his lawyer said. Eisenhower wouldn't say if Brady signed one.
Lawyer Jeffrey Miller believes that Moore, who is black, had a real shot at challenging Brady in the mostly black district, if not for his finances. He represents Moore, who is now in his late 60s and back on the bench.
"If he (Brady) wasn't concerned, then he never would have generated $90,000 and paid Jimmie's campaign bills off," Miller said. "The real question is, does the transfer of funds constitute a crime?"
He would say no. A lawyer for Cavaness declined comment.
A former Federal Election Commission lawyer said it's legal to hold a fundraiser for a failed rival, but not to pay them to drop out.
"You wouldn't create a shell corporation and hide it if you thought it was legal," said Adav Noti, senior director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Ori Feibush, a young developer who bucked city Democrats by unsuccessfully challenging an incumbent councilman in 2013 said the case shows how hard it is to take on the political establishment. Few people even try in Philadelphia, where Democrats have a 7-to-1 monopoly and contested primaries are rare.
Feibush, who's something of a mover and shaker in the city at 33, said Brady works hard "to make sure that nobody's fighting" and "to limit or eliminate competition."
"The (party) mentality, it's not 'competition is healthy.' It's 'this is my seat and how dare you run against me,'" Feibush said. "It's maddening, but that is the environment in Philadelphia."