A city can survive an incompetent government or a corrupt government. Attempting to function under both, however, is a tall order.
Philadelphians now must endure both in a turn of events that is shocking even for the famously “corrupt and contented” city as the largest distributor of COVID-19 vaccines in the city is exposed as a fraud. Through a baffling series of errors and the strong whiff of cronyism, Philadelphia crippled its vaccine effort before it even started.
The problems began before the vaccine came out when the city government entrusted a new corporation, Philly Fighting COVID (PFC), to be one of its main purveyors of COVID testing. The company was founded in April 2020 by Andrew Doroshin, a 22-year-old graduate student, to produce some of the protective equipment hospitals and clinics desperately needed By July, according to a report from local PBS affiliate WHYY, Doroshin’s company pivoted to COVID testing, landing a hefty contract from the city.
No one questioned the idea that a brand-new corporation led by a college kid would be able to pivot to a completely different business line in which it had no experience. When vaccines came onto the market, Doroshin and company abruptly dropped the testing business and shifted completely into vaccination, leaving many of their partner organizations in the lurch.
The contracts were put out to bid following the city’s good-government procedures, but those safeguards were immediately short-circuited when Philadelphia’s Deputy Health Commissioner Caroline Johnson told Doroshin how much to bid. According to e-mails obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Johnson suggested that Doroshin start “conservatively” with a low bid, then request more once tax dollars started flowing from Washington to aid the vaccine effort.
Unsurprisingly, the inside information helped Doroshin’s company got the city’s biggest contract. Johnson sent a similar message to the Black Doctors COVID-19 Consortium, according to the Inquirer, which at least is a group run by actual medical professionals. Doroshin’s vaccination site opened on Jan. 8 with Mayor Jim Kenney and several city council members attending, along with Johnson. She resigned after the news of her corruption became public.
PFC also was accused — accurately, as it turns out — of extending special privileges to City Council members, including in-home testing for Councilman Bobby Henon and his family. Henon is currently under federal indictment on unrelated corruption charges but continues to serve in office.
The story began to reach the public’s attention when it emerged that Doroshin took several vaccine doses home for him and his friends to use, again short-circuiting the legal processes for vaccine distribution. That level of hypocrisy rose above even the background rate of skullduggery in the city and led to the rest of the problems with PFC coming to light. The city ended the contract with the company after the public outcry, leaving many who got their first shot of the two-shot vaccine from PFC to wonder where and how they will get the second.
All of the politicians started shouting about how outraged they are, but they are all responsible for this debacle. Why did anyone take this company’s bid seriously in the first place? Why did the city’s Health Department not take the lead on this and work through established hospitals, clinics, and doctors’ offices? The vaccine rollout is not great in the rest of the state, but at least it is working, if slowly.
The coronavirus outbreak was initially a shock, and some rules were bound to be broken and corners cut. But the vaccine was released after months of waiting, time that could have been spent planning a good and honest system for distributing it. There was no need for the city to fly by the seat of its pants, rig the bid process, or place their trust in an unproven, unqualified, unscrupulous corporate partner.
Why not try harder? Because there are no consequences. Everyone on City Council will be reelected in 2023, even Henon if he manages to stay out of jail. Johnson was fired from her job in the Health Department, but she will likely be the only one.
Mayor Kenney is term-limited, but has the nerve to think that Pennsylvanians should elect him to the U.S. Senate. Why not? No one in the Philadelphia Democratic machine has ever suffered from the consequences of his ineptitude before. It is no shock that Kenney thinks the voters should give him a promotion.
The city government has been corrupt for a long time, but they used to also be able to get things done. Now, they miss even that low bar of minimal competence. The people suffer, while their political leaders skate away scot-free.
If voters do not hold politicians accountable, no one will. Will this be the wake-up call that breaks the failing, dishonest machine’s stranglehold on the city? It should be, but Philadelphians should not get their hopes up.