Ethics board fines Philadelphia official for Facebook posts
November 26, 2012By Dave Davies
The city Board of Ethics has fined Philadelphia Deputy City Commissioner Tracey Gordon $675 for posts on her personal Facebook page that violated restrictions on political activity for city employees.
Gordon's attorney said she had no idea she was running afoul of the city charter, and it's likely thousands of city employees could unwittingly make the same mistake.
The Gorden case is a modern example of an old problem. To clean up corruption 60 years ago, a new city charter banned political activity by city employees. But over time, it became clear that an absolute ban on political activity violated city workers' First Amendment rights.
So last year, the Ethics Board developed new rules. Now a city employee can plant a lawn sign endorsing a candidate but can't work in a campaign or be a part ward leader or committeeperson.
And there are specific guidelines for social media.
"A city employee can express support or opposition to political parties, candidates or partisan poliltical groups in a post on a social network, as long as they meet four conditions," said Ethics Board Executive Director Shane Creamer.
The city worker employee can't reference their city employment in the post or solicit contributions.
But Gordon ran afoul of conditions three and four. She used her city computer, which is prohibited. And — this is the one many find surprising — she linked to sites created by candidates or partisan groups.
Creamer agreed it can seem a subtle distinction: It's okay to endorse a candidate on Facebook, but it's a charter violation to link to the candidate's website.
"The problem is you have to draw the line somewhere," Creamer said, and when an employee links to material created by a political organization, it can give the impression the employee is formally connected to the group.
Tracey Gordon's attorney, Irv Ackelsberg, said he's sure many city workers don't know there are rules for what they can do in social media, even on their own time and their own computers.
"And it's really important that city employees understand how strict [the rules] are," Ackelsberg said. "The fact that Tracey did not receive any training about those rules in the end was not a defense."
Creamer agreed Gordon didn't willfully violate the charter, and because she cooperated, her fine was reduced from $2,700 to $675. Gordon and the Ethics Board signed an agreement to settle the matter, which you can read below.
One subject Creamer declined to address is what prompted the Ethics Board to investigate Gordon's computer use.
Anyone can file a complaint with the board, and Gordon made some enemies within the Philadelphia Democratic party when she sued the Democratic City Committee in 2010. Gordon had won an election for committeeperson, but her Democratic ward leader, Anna Brown refused to seat her.
Gordon withdrew as a plaintiff when she joined the city commission, but the suit has two other plaintiffs, including one voter who supported Gordon for the committee post. The case is pending before Pennsylvania Superior Court.