Sep 25, 2023 - News

Scoop: Payments to Philly police watchdog members called "off the wall"

Illustration of a police hat with coins falling into an open hand. 

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Two commissioners at Philadelphia's police watchdog have been charging the agency for activities that weren't dictated for payment by city law, according to records obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The payments caused strife inside the Citizens Police Oversight Commission — an agency that has repeatedly faced scrutiny for a lack of transparency in how it operates.

Driving the news: CPOC commissioners Rosaura Thomas and Hassan Bennett accounted for nearly $11,000, or roughly 60%, of the nearly $18,000 paid to nine commissioners over a year's time ending mid-June, per Axios' analysis of invoices.

  • None of Thomas' and Bennett's colleagues billed more than $1,750 for the same period, and two commissioners opted not to accept any compensation during that time, per the records.

Context: CPOC typically holds two meetings a month, and commissioners may receive $125 for each meeting they attend, or about $3,000 a year, per city law. They can also be compensated for holding a hearing, though this commission hasn't yet held a hearing.

  • The city ordinance does not mention any other type of compensation that commissioners can charge for.

Zoom in: Thomas and Bennett were the only commissioners who billed for training sessions that all commissioners attended.

  • Thomas also invoiced CPOC for attending non-CPOC events that were run by the NAACP and ACLU, records show.

What they're saying: Pat Christmas, chief policy officer at the nonpartisan government ethics watchdog Committee of Seventy, told Axios he was uncertain "why certain members believed they could invoice for expenses other than regular commission meetings."

  • "The law is clear about meeting stipends."

Benjamin Lerner, who was a Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas judge for decades and a CPOC commissioner who resigned earlier this year, tells Axios that he views the commissioner post as a largely volunteer position with limitations on what commissioners can "reasonably" charge.

  • Thomas and Bennett's compensation, Lerner tells Axios, is "totally off the wall, totally excessive."

The other side: Thomas and Bennett each tell Axios that many events they billed for took hours of their time and that they believe the law outlining commissioner compensation isn't clear.

  • "I've never taken anything," Thomas tells Axios. "I wouldn't even steal candy."

Bennett tells Axios he reinvested much of the compensation he received in community events. He defended CPOC's payments to him in an email he sent to the agency's lawyer this summer, noting that he had billed only for roughly half of the 63 meetings he attended from late April 2022 to June 2023.

  • "The commission has not used the legislation to pad our pockets," he wrote.

Both commissioners referred to a March 2023 email from CPOC interim executive director Anthony Erace, which they say justifies their expenses for training sessions.

  • In the email, obtained by Axios, Erace writes that commissioners can possibly bill for training they received but warns them that his opinion is "not official."
  • Erace's signature appears on the invoices, which were then sent over to the city finance department for processing.
  • Erace declined Axios' request for comment.

Between the lines: Commissioners had the final say over how much they were paid, and CPOC staff was powerless to veto invoices they believed were excessive or withhold payment from commissioners.

Of note: After Axios requested the invoices under public records law, CPOC's lawyer, Catherine Twigg, had the commissioners sign affidavits swearing that they attended all the meetings that they billed the city for.

  • The city requested several extensions to respond to our records request.

What's next: Twigg is working on a policy clarifying what commissioners can charge, commissioners tell Axios.

  • Twigg didn't respond to Axios' request for comment.

The bottom line: Christmas of the Committee of Seventy says the new policy could eliminate the possibility of anybody exploiting the rules.

  • "Our overarching concern is that a stumble like this distracts the commission from performing its oversight function," he tells Axios.

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