How is it that after 19 years in Congress and 30 years as chairman of Philadelphia's Democratic Party, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady finds himself in an embarrassing mess?

Brady is accused by federal prosecutors in a court filing of having eased his 2012 primary opponent out of the race with a promise of campaign money to retire the opponent's debt. He's not charged, but it looks unsavory, and he's had to lawyer-up.

I look at the story, and what I see is Brady being Brady.

Some politicians are policy wonks, some egomaniacs who have to be the center of attention in every room.

Brady's is a master at building relationships, and it's served him well, from his ward headquarters in Overbrook to cloakrooms on Capitol Hill.

When Brady met with his primary opponent in 2012, he was doing what he's been doing for decades: turning an enemy into a friend, or an opponent into an ally.

Everybody in Philly, it seems, has a Brady story.

One cold day in 2009, the phone rang on my desk at the Philadelphia Daily News. It was Brady.

"You okay?" he asked.

It took me a second to figure out what he meant, then I remembered: the paper had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy that day.

Brady was checking to see how I was holding up and to tell me that, you know, if I need some help, I could call him.

I hung up and smiled. Bob Brady was telling me in so many words that if I found myself on the street, he could get me work. I have no doubt that he could have, and that he's made a thousand of those calls.

Brady is a former carpenter who grew up in ward politics, and has spent 30 years making deals, settling disputes and keeping the Philadelphia Democratic Party one of the last big city political machines in the country.

He's not a policy innovator or a political change agent.

For a great portrait of Brady in Philly and Washington, read Holly Otterbein's profile earlier this year in Philadelphia Magazine.

She captures Brady beautifully, and makes that case that while he's good at keeping peace among political factions, he's set a low bar for ethics and effectiveness among candidates the party backs.

Plenty of indictments underscore that point, but there's another side to Brady.

Because he has thousands of relationships, he can get stuff done when city leaders need help. Whether it's getting the Democratic convention here, or getting Conrail to move on cleaning up the squalid shooting gallery along its tracks in Kensington, Brady has used his influence in positive ways.

Brady's Ethical Compass
More times than I can remember, Brady's told me how careful he is to avoid situations that cross the line and could land him in trouble.

He won't take free meals, refuses to cut in line at a Georgetown restaurant even of the owner invites him to, and makes sure he pays his own bills, he says.

His work is about helping good people and causes, he says. But he can get tripped up by nit-picky campaign finance rules.

The biggest battle I had with Brady came over a story I wrote in 2005.

I discovered a political committee operating out Brady's ward headquarters and run by an employee of Brady's that had raised more than $400,000 without filing a single campaign finance report over a three-year period.

The donors were mostly unions friendly to Brady. Politicians told me it was Brady's ward PAC, but he insisted to me that he had nothing to do with it.

Why? Maybe because as a federal elected official he's barred from running a PAC that accepts contributions in excess of federal limits, which this committee did.

When I asked about it, Brady was friendly enough at first. Then he quit returning my calls and I got a hand-delivered letter from power-lawyer Dick Sprague warning me of serious consequences if I pursued the story.

Our lawyers got involved, I wrote the story, the committee cleaned up its act and filed reports, and Brady and I got past it.

I think Brady's point of view was that he raises money to help good candidates and support his community. He buys chairs, tables and food for polling places. And then people bother him with all these damn reporting rules that are nearly impossible to understand, much less follow. 

When Brady ran for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, the city Ethics Board cited his campaign for numerous excess contributions and reporting failures and levied a civil fine of $19,250.

The Current Mess
So what happened in 2012, when he feds say Brady made a deal with his primary opponent, Jimmie Moore, in which Moore would drop his bid for Brady's seat and Brady would give $90,000 in campaign funds to retire Moore's campaign debt?

Politicians will tell you than it's not uncommon for an incumbent to tell an opponent that if he drops out, the incumbent will help him raise money for a future run, or recommend him for a job or appointed post.

You may remember the Obama White House admitted offering U.S. Rep Joe Sestak an appointment in 2010 if he stayed out of the Pennsylvania Senate race.

In 2012, Moore wasn't likely to beat Brady, but the campaign had the potential to be racially divisive. Moore is African-American. Brady is white in a district with more blacks than whites.

I imagine Brady figures he was just helping Moore and helping the party at the same time.

If the challenger can't win and is willing to exit gracefully, why not be generous? The party comes together and avoids a nasty fight, and Moore, who's committed money of his own and has debts to vendors, gets some help. What's wrong with that?

Brady helps lots of people, all the time. What's the problem?

Two things: First, while it may not be illegal offer an inducement to get someone out of a race, it strikes a lot of people as sleazy, not the way to decide which candidates voters get to choose.

Second, there are those doggone campaign finance laws. The limit for one federal candidate committee's contribution to another is $4,000 per election cycle, so it would have been hard to figure out how to provide that $90,000 legally.

So the feds say the money was routed from Brady's committee through two political consultants to a dummy company set up by Moore's campaign manager, Carolyn Cavaness, who's pled guilty to violating campaign finance laws.

Brady's attorney, Jim Eisenhower, says those were real payments for campaign services from Cavaness and a poll Moore's campaign commissioned.

Moore's attorney, Jeffrey Miller acknowledges there was a meeting and an agreement for Brady to help Moore with his expenses. He said he doesn't know why the payments were routed the way they were, but he doesn't think it was anything criminal.

Again, Brady isn't charged and may not be.

But I picture him, at age 72, having avoided this kind of trouble for decades while so many others have fallen, having to hire a lawyer and being interviewed by the FBI.

He must wonder how he got here.