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April 26, 2023

Candidates in Philly mayor's race point fingers, make accusations during final debate before Democratic primary

Jeff Brown and Helen Gym were among the main culprits, lobbing ethical accusations at each other in Tuesday night's debate on 6ABC

2023 Election Mayoral Race
philly mayoral debate Screen capture/6ABC

Jeff Brown and Helen Gym led a messy argument over ethics in last night's mayoral debate.

Sparks flew in last night's Democratic mayoral debate, as candidates rushed to accuse one another of dubious ethics and dirty politics.

The scrapping started when moderator and 6ABC anchor Matt O'Donnell asked Jeff Brown about For a Better Philadelphia, the super PAC supporting his campaign. The political action committee was sued by the Philadelphia Board of Ethics earlier this month for allegedly coordinating with Brown and exceeding campaign contribution limits. On Monday, a judge approved a limited agreement between the parties.

Helen Gym, the progressive former councilmember, shot back, "Let me make it clear: The ethics board didn't settle the case. The case is being continued and will probably be settled after this election, which should raise alarm bells for every single voter here."

The pair battled again over campaign finance when O'Donnell later asked Amen Brown if he received money from super PACs. The state representative from West Philly claimed he has not, while Gym, Cherelle Parker and Rebecca Rhynhart declined to answer, citing their adherence to the no-coordination rule that currently has Jeff Brown in hot water.

"And unlike Jeff Brown, our super PACs actually disclose their donors," Gym cracked.

Brown then claimed "almost everyone up here has had ethics problems" and that "Helen was one of the largest ones." She denied any "ethical issues with (my) campaign," instead prompting a discussion of Allan Domb getting fined for failing to disclose a conflict of interest on a property he owned, which was subject to legislation while he was on City Council.

"I had one violation to my knowledge," the former councilmember said. "And I didn't vote on the bill, but I didn't disclose why I didn't vote on the bill. I didn't know that, and that was my violation."

OK, so who's right?

Domb's account of his ethics violation lines up with the facts. Last year, the ethics board found that the real estate developer did disclose his ownership stake in a property at 20th and Arch streets, and he did abstain from votes on legislation pertaining to it in 2019 and 2021. He just didn't announce his reason for abstaining in a hearing, which resulted in the $2,000 fine.

Gym is also right that her mayoral campaign has no reported ethical violations, but Jeff Brown was likely alluding to an incident from her 2015 bid for City Council. A Board of Ethics investigation revealed that the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers made an excessive contribution to Gym's campaign, apparently without her knowledge. The union was fined, but Gym was not accused of any wrongdoing.

As for Brown's claim that the ethics board "settled" its lawsuit, well, that's not correct. On Monday, BillyPenn was among the news outlets to report the judge approved a limited agreement between the ethics board and For a Better Philadelphia that largely prevents the super PAC from participating in the remainder of the mayoral race, but the suit is still ongoing. As Gym and moderator O'Donnell suggested in the debate, the next court hearing will likely occur after the May 16 primary election.

Does everyone in the mayoral race have ethics problems?

Jeff Brown was right about one thing: Most of the candidates in this race have had ethics issues. In addition to the incidents above, Parker was convicted of drunk driving while serving in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 2011. Amen Brown has faced multiple ballot challenges for failing to disclose his debts, and a lawsuit from the city over unpaid taxes. And Warren Bloom, a fringe candidate who was not invited to last night's debate, was charged with assault in 1992.

James DeLeon, the retired judge also running for the Democratic nomination, was suspended from the bench in 2009 for misconduct. Meanwhile, David Oh, the only Republican candidate in the race, was fined for accepting an illegal campaign donation during his 2015 reelection bid for City Council.

Rhynhart, the former city controller, has no outstanding fines or formal accusations against her, but she has received criticism for paying former Mayor John Street a $22,000 consulting fee. Street endorsed Rhynhart in January and has been featured in her campaign ads.

That just leaves outsider candidate Delscia Gray, and based on her minimal presence in this race, her ethics are anyone's guess.

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