Are payments to Chester rep's family conflict of interest?

Charismatic, well-dressed and a nearly unbeatable politician, Thaddeus Kirkland has hired numerous relatives, including his daughter, Tyra Starr. (Photos: Chester Spirit)
Daily News Staff Writer

IT PAYS to know Thaddeus Kirkland - better yet, perhaps, to call him your father-in-law, your pastor or your dad.

Kirkland is a rainmaker in his riverfront city of Chester, and the entrenched state representative from Delaware County has helped steer hundreds of thousands of dollars in state money to organizations close to his family: * The Baptist church where he preaches.

* The arts center where his wife is the president and his son-in-law served as the executive director.

* The annual cultural festival that boosts his political profile and has paid his daughter to sing.

About $800,000 in grants from Harrisburg have gone to those organizations since 1998 as part of a funding process that appears rife with potential conflicts.

Those organizations have also received money from Kirkland's campaign committee, but tracking the final destination of his political funds can be difficult. The committee has paid $100,000 to Kirkland himself since 2000, and another $84,000 when the recipient is listed as "cash."

Kirkland, 57, a Democrat in a politically "safe" district who hasn't had a close race in a decade, said that there are legitimate reasons for paying himself large sums of campaign cash. And he dismissed the notion that using public money to fund organizations run by his family raises ethical concerns. After 10 terms in Harrisburg, Kirkland said, he knows right from wrong.

"I've been there 20 years," he said. "I think I know a little bit about ethics."

 

'Lies straight from hell'

Thaddeus Kirkland sees demons. Or, at least one - the "demonic" Republican, James "Jay" Schiliro, who wants his job in the 159th District.

Last month, Schiliro, 38, a burly ex-boilermaker and mayor of neighboring Marcus Hook, filed a complaint with the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission and state Attorney General's Office, asking them to investigate Kirkland.

Kirkland responded by gathering his supporters and calling a news conference - at the altar at Chester's Community Baptist Church, where he is pastor.

"Lies and deception from a demonic opponent," Kirkland was quoted in the Delaware County Daily Times. "Lies straight from hell. I can say that because I'm in a church."

Schiliro has offered to debate Kirkland while they're both hooked up to polygraph machines.

"We'll see who's the liar and who's telling the truth," Schiliro said, as he polished off a plate of eggs at Poppy's Doggies, his luncheonette adjacent to the Sunoco refinery. "I'm a Christian man, I go to church every Sunday just like he does. I'm a lector at my church."

Records show that Kirkland's Community Baptist Church has received $130,000 through the state's Department of Community and Economic Development since 2005, including $60,000 for renovations. A $15,000 grant was approved in 2009, the same year that Kirkland began listing the church as a source of income on his statements of financial interests.

Kirkland said that he did not receive any of the money allocated to the church. But some of his relatives have been paid with public funds.

Kirkland's son-in-law John Wooten received $65,000 out of a $100,000 state grant to serve as the executive director of the Chester Fine Arts Center East, founded by Kirkland's late brother. Kirkland's wife, Susan, president of the arts center, is listed as the grantee and signed the paperwork.

Kirkland said that the grant was applied for through his office, but he was not involved in selecting Wooten for the job.

"When they applied for the grant, my brother was doing interviews for executive director. I didn't know who he was going to put in place," Kirkland said. "Whether it was John or Lodi Dodi or someone else, I don't make those decisions. I don't know a whole lot about the arts, I just support them."

The center has received $321,000 from the state since 1998, according to DCED records. Kirkland did not respond to requests for comment about the other grants.

Kirkland said that his daughter Tyra Starr was paid about $1,500 out of an $85,000 grant in 2009 to sing at the Across Colors Cultural Festival that he has hosted in Chester for 19 years. The grantees who signed the paperwork are Kirkland's daughter Lashonda Wooten, president of the festival's committee, and his sister Leola Williams, the treasurer. The Across Colors committee has received about $350,000 in state grants since 1998.

"We always bring in local talent from Delaware County. She is part of that local talent," Kirkland said of his daughter.

Some of the grants obtained through Kirkland's office include thousands of dollars for consultants, public relations and other fees. It is unclear who was paid for those services.

"It's mind-boggling," Schiliro said of the money trail.

Starr and Associates Consulting, run by Kirkland's son-in-law Ronald Starr, lists the Chester Fine Arts Center East as a past or current client on its website. The site had also listed Kirkland's son-in-law John Wooten and Kirkland's sister Leola Williams as senior vice presidents, and Kirkland's daughter Lashonda Wooten as an associate. But those names disappeared from the site after Schiliro raised questions about the firm.

Starr, the campaign manager for the Chester Democratic Committee and chief of staff to Chester Mayor John Linder, did not respond to requests for comment about why the website was altered. Kirkland said that neither Starr nor any of the relatives that had been listed as employees of his company had been paid by the arts center.

Starr was at the center of a minor controversy in 2005 when his company, All Starr Publishing, received an $8,000 contract to run the Chester Upland School District website, but the site hadn't been updated for months. In February 2005, it was still welcoming students back to a "new and exciting school year." Kirkland said then that he had recommended Starr for the contract, but hadn't mentioned to the school district's chief executive that Starr was in a relationship with his daughter.

 

Campaign money

Kirkland was elected to the House in 1992 after an odd Democratic primary. Both candidates had arrest records - Kirkland for purchasing cocaine in 1988; his opponent, Carolyn Saunders, for welfare fraud, assault and disorderly conduct - but they urged voters not to let the other's rap sheets influence their choice.

Kirkland has since won several landslide elections. In 2008, he defeated his Republican opponent by 81 percent to 19 percent. Democrats now have a 10,000-vote registration edge in the district, which includes Chester and the surrounding towns.

His campaign committee, Friends of Thaddeus Kirkland, has been dishing out large amounts of cash, including to Kirkland himself. In 2010, when Kirkland won the primary by a 70-30 percentage, and the general election by 72-28, his campaign transferred $33,800 to Kirkland.

Kirkland said that those and other payments to himself - $100,000 since 2000 - include street money paid to Election Day workers and situations where he paid money out of pocket and was reimbursed. The descriptions listed for the payments to Kirkland include Election Day expenses, campaign literature, fundraisers, a contribution to the Democratic National Committee, and food and beverages. Most of the payments are round figures.

Gregory Harvey, a Democratic attorney and election-law expert, said that it is rare for a campaign committee to disperse so much money to the candidate.

"It's a strange way to do it, and if it's not supported by adequate vouchers, it's illegal," Harvey said.

Kirkland said that he has documentation to support the expenditures, but would provide them to the Daily News "only if you ask every other candidate, because for some reason I feel like I'm the target of a witch hunt."

Zack Stalberg, president of the Committee of Seventy government-watchdog group, said that Kirkland's campaign payments seem unusual, and the public money going to his in-laws and organizations controlled by his relatives "should raise a red flag." He said that gerrymandering can contribute to questionable behavior.

"After a while, people start to feel very safe and entitled, and they can use their influence to get grants," Stalberg said.

Kirkland, who will likely be elected to an 11th term on Tuesday, insists that everything he's done is aboveboard. Officials at the Ethics Commission and Attorney General's Office would not comment on whether they intend to investigate.

"I welcome an investigation," Kirkland said. "I welcome an investigation for the entire House. Put everything on the table. My family and myself would give the shirts off our back. We're honest and we have integrity."

 


Contact William Bender at benderw@phillynews.com or 215-854-5255. Follow him on Twitter @wbender99. Read his blog at philly.com/DailyDelco.

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