PHILADELPHIA – For two tense hours last month, it looked as if a tragic new chapter in Philadelphia's long history of corruption was about to be written when a councilman under federal investigation climbed to the City Hall observation deck 500 feet above the street and set off a suicide scare.
In the end, Rick Mariano (search) was talked down, and days later he was indicted on fraud and bribery charges to a knowing sigh from people in the City of Brotherly Love.
Whether Philadelphians at by a long-running FBI investigation that has resulted in the convictions of more than a dozen people, including former city Treasurer Corey Kemp (search), who accepted gifts, tickets to sporting events and cash to steer municipal contracts to certain businesses.
The investigation became public two years ago when an FBI bug was discovered in Mayor John Street's office. Street has not been charged and has denied any wrongdoing.
Mariano was arrested in a separate investigation on charges he let his friends pay his credit-card and health-club tabs in exchange for political favors, including tax breaks. (His spokesman said the councilman went up to the observation deck to clear his head, not to kill himself.)
"I think many citizens are just dismayed by all that's gone on over the past couple of years, and at times maybe feel somewhat powerless," said Councilman Michael Nutter, who pushed the ethics reform proposal through the council.
The ballot measure would impose Philadelphia's first-ever limits on campaign contributions by people seeking municipal contracts. An individual would be barred from getting a no-bid contract worth more than $10,000 if the person had given more than $2,500 per year to the campaign of a city official. Companies seeking city contracts would be barred from giving more than $5,000 per year.
Many more reforms need to follow, Nutter said, including the creation of an independent ethics board to enforce the rules and train city employees.
"The more steps we take to show we are really trying to work on these issues, the better off we will be," he said. "It's not good for the city, it's not good for business, it's not good for our image to operate with that cloud hanging over our head."
From the mid-1970s to early 1990s, six Philadelphia council members went to prison, including the three caught in Abscam, the FBI sting in which agents posing as Arab sheiks offered bribes in return for favors. At the time, Street, then a member of the council, called the 17-member body "nothing but thieves and crooks."
The ballot measure has received strong support from The Committee of Seventy, a nonpartisan government reform group in Philadelphia.
"I think we've gotten accustomed to getting and expecting favors ... from parking tickets all the way up to no-bid contracts. The history has been `I'll do this for you if you do this for me,"' said Zack Stalberg, the group's executive director and former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News.
Indeed, the business-as-usual argument has cropped up repeatedly as a defense in recent corruption cases.
Two bank executives convicted of giving loans to the treasurer and others to get an inside track on city business said they were following long-standing practices in their dealings with City Hall.
Former City Councilman James Tayoun — who pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 1991 and wrote a how-to book on prison life called "Going To Prison?" — still does not sense any clamor for reform.
"If he (Mariano) were to be found guilty, if he could get out of prison and run for office, he would probably win," Tayoun said. (Under Pennsylvania law, he would be barred from holding office if convicted as charged.)
But Stalberg expects voters to approve the ballot measure.
"My sense is they're beginning to get fed up about it," he said.