Promising that it won’t happen again, City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown this week gave a detailed explanation of the circumstances surrounding the missteps that led to her agreeing to pay a record fine for violating city campaign finance laws.
“You have to face the music,” Brown said. “I have a daughter looking at me, my mother and other young women. Part of leadership is saying, ‘I messed up.’”
Brown sat down with The Philadelphia Tribune for an exclusive interview to discuss the circumstances surrounding her agreement to pay more than $40,000 in fines for ethics violations.
In addition to discussing her role in the violations, Brown assured her constituents – voters all across the city – that she has put safeguards in place to insure that something like this never happens again.
“We are expected to conduct ourselves to a higher standard,” she said. “I fell down, and I’m more disappointed with myself than anyone else could ever be. I asked to do this work, and you take the hits that come with it and you don’t complain.”
As an example of her resolve, the councilwoman noted that she will file her next round of campaign reports Friday -- a week late thanks to an extension -- because she and her staff are going over them with a fine tooth comb. They will be correct and include every detail, she said.
“I am in the weeds in a very meticulous way,” Brown said. “This time, I’m going through every single page.”
Brown herself is financially responsible for personal violations. Her campaign will pay fines related to her committee. In total, she will pay in eight $5,000 installments until the end of 2014.
“I have to go out and raise the money, ask people to invest in me again,” she said.
In sitting down with the Tribune, Brown said she wanted to present the facts in a broader context.
It is not the first time the suddenly embattled councilwoman has been the subject of an ethics investigation. She faced a similar problem, though on much smaller scale in 2011. Then, as now, she agreed to pay a fine for violating city campaign finance rules.
In both cases, political operative John McDaniel was involved. And Brown, while taking full responsibility for actions detailed in the 25-page settlement agreement, said McDaniel was at the core of her troubles.
To outsiders the two incidents may seem separate but they are related, said Brown - all part of a hazy year or so of personal tumult that started with her divorce.
“My life was stupid for a year and a half,” she said.
Her current difficulties started in August 2010, when Brown learned that her ex-husband had stopped making mortgage payments on the home she shares with her daughter and mother. The bank was threatening to foreclose – its second effort apparently – and Brown owed more than $40,000 in back payments, penalties and interest for payments not made since January.
The news sent her scrambling for cash.
“In a move of desperation, I had to figure out how I could come up with $40,000 to save my home,” she said. She tapped her pension, her daughter’s college fund and took loans from friends.
By mid-November she’d raised most of the cash, she but remained $3,300 short. She turned to a longtime friend for help. That friend happened to be U.S Rep. Chaka Fattah.
“That was a misjudgment, because in the eyes of others he’s not a longtime friend – he’s the congressman,” said Brown.
Fattah in turn asked his son, Chaka “Chip” Fattah Jr., to give Brown a check, which he did.
Brown got caught up on her mortgage payments. And then, aside from asking McDaniel, who was her campaign manager, to pay back the loan from a campaign account, which he did in December, she forgot about it.
Looking back now, Brown realizes that she should not have told McDaniel to pay back the debt out of campaign funds.
“When you’re going through that sense of desperation and crisis you do a lot of things that don’t make sense,” she said. “I did not think through, adequately and clearly, that this was inappropriate. I was not thinking through a lot of things clearly.”
Brown said she didn’t realize that McDaniel had cut the check and recorded it as a payment to a printing company.
It was almost two years later, when Brown heard about an FBI investigation into Fattah Jr. that the loan re-entered her mind.
She knew that McDaniel, who faced questions about ethics violations in 2003 in an unrelated matter and, in yet another incident, agreed to pay back $13,000 to a nonprofit from which he had allegedly stolen the money, had a questionable history when she hired him.
“I believe in second chances,” she said. “Our relationship goes back to 1984. I always had faith and trust in John.”
McDaniel, however, continues to attract the attention of authorities, who are less forgiving. He was named Wednesday in a federal investigation in which U.S. officials allege he stole $100,000 from a political action committee linked to Brown.
“I don’t take responsibility for John McDaniel,” she said, declining to comment on that investigation. She stuck to recounting her own story.
After learning that Fattah Jr. was under investigation in the spring of 2012, Brown called McDaniel to make sure he had done as instructed.
“I said, “Please tell me you recorded that $3,300 transaction on my expense report,’” she said. “He told me no.”
It was then that Brown, as noted in her recent settlement with the Ethics Board, decided on her own to confess to ethics officials.
Though the incident involving the Fattahs has been the center of the brouhaha, the ethics report also noted numerous other violations. In a few, Brown took checks and deposited them in her personal account.
Sloppy bookkeeping is how the councilwoman explained that, telling the Tribune that the checks were made out to her personally, and she endorsed each of them over to her campaign committee – Friends of Blondell Reynolds Brown.
“It was sloppy paperwork. Period,” she said.
A non-disclosure clause in the settlement agreement forbids Brown from criticizing its findings but her mood turned sour when she discussed those checks. In addition, the councilwoman pointed out that the subjects of ethics investigations are free to refute allegations in a report until it is released.
After that they must remain silent.
Ultimately, Brown is determined to avoid getting mired in the scandal. Her position as council’s majority whip appears safe - as does her seat on council. She’s looking forward.
“I’m not fretting about it,” she said. “You have to work hard again to rebuild your reputation. I want to get back to the work that gives me a lot of personal and professional joy.”
She hopes that her constituents can do the same.
“I would hope that they would look at my record, and ultimately I hope that’s what people measure me by. This politics stuff comes and goes.”