May 3, 2011; Source: NewsWorks | The chair of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, Robert Archie, is closely associated with a nonprofit conglomerate founded by musician Kenny Gamble called the Universal Companies. He sits on at least one Universal Companies board and has previously been on others. He acknowledges his close relationship with Gamble’s nonprofit empire and therefore rescuses himself from voting on Universal Companies items brought to the Commission.

Is recusal alone sufficient? Not in Archie’s case.

During Commission discussions about awarding two charter designations worth $45 million to Gamble’s conglomerate, Chairman Archie did abstain from the vote. But during the pre-vote hearing, Archie helped out an apparently less than fully informed Universal staff person by “extensively touting the organization’s accomplishments.” Archie’s pro-Universal harangue prompted murmurs and comments from the audience that watched the proceedings. That didn’t dissuade the remaining commissioners to unanimously designate Universal Companies to manage the Audenreid High and Vare Middle schools as “Promise Neighborhood Partnership Charter Schools.”

Recusing oneself means not only abstaining from voting, but also shutting your trap. According to the chief counsel of the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission, recusal is “the duty . . . to abstain, even from commentary,” not to mention the more obvious advocacy of the sort that Archie was practicing.

Archie seems to feel that designating groups for charters doesn’t require much in terms of transparency and accountability. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has already “launched a fact-finding inquiry into the controversy at Martin Luther King High, where Archie has acknowledged participating in a close-door meeting about the fate of the school despite his connections to one of its potential charter operators.”

Had Archie abstained from voting, abjured commentary about Universal Companies as a model for turning around schools and neighborhoods, and rejected close-door meetings, would that have been sufficient?

Here is the hardly-secret secret of recusals. Do you think the other members of the Commission already knew about Archie’s past and current connections to the Universal Companies? Of course they did. Do you think that his public statements in the past about Gamble’s operation might be remembered generically or specifically by the members of the Commission? Of course they were. Do you think that Archie’s casual conversations with other commissioners might have included mention about how nifty Gamble and Universal are? It’s hard to imagine otherwise.

Do commissioners like Archie and the other members of the School Reform board understand the extent to which even the appearance of conflicts of interest reduce the public’s trust in government decision-making? Doubtful.—Rick Cohen