Delaware County District Attorney Jack Whelan used his office budget to take out over $53,000 in advertisements that prominently featured his name and likeness in the weeks before a judicial primary in which he ran on both the Democratic and Republican tickets.
On paper, the ad buy was merely the continuation of a public service campaign aimed at deterring straw purchases of guns his office has run since 2015. But this year, Whelan, a Republican, directed his office to increase its ad purchases by some 540 percent – $53,000 in the two months before the May primary, compared to $6,250 in all of 2016.
Emails obtained by City&State PA also show Whelan asking his staff to ensure that his name would appear in a larger font size than previous years. Advertising contracts obtained by City&State PA show the ad placements – from digital billboards off I-95 to SEPTA bus shelter ads – heavily tracked predominantly Democratic portions of Delaware County.
Whelan, a lock for the Republican nomination in the race for Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, was notably campaigning at the time for the Democratic nod in a bid to run unopposed in November. His office halted the advertising, which was paid for in part with civil asset forfeiture proceeds, shortly after the primary.
“It certainly sounds like Mr. Whelan was trying to use county funds to help himself get elected judge,” said Bob Warner, from the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause. “If he has $50,000 just sitting around for this, perhaps the county council should be taking a closer look at his budget.”
The line between campaign ads and government information has long been blurred. Disgraced Congressman Chaka Fattah was rapped during last year’s primary when he used his franking privilege to disseminate mailers highlighting his accomplishments in D.C.
The financially strapped Fattah, worn down by corruption allegations, said he was simply keeping his constituents informed.
In a recent phone interview, Whelan similarly defended his actions and blamed his political opponents for turning his commitment to stanching gun crime against him. The billboards, which depict the district attorney standing between two police officers, warn that buying a weapon for someone who is barred from gun sales carries a 5-year prison term.
He said the billboards were part of his office’s broader strategy against illegal guns, in which he has secured a number of convictions against straw buyers.
“A lot of people don’t realize that if you have a handgun and give it to a felon, that’s illegal,” he said. “It’s asinine, what they say,” he added, in reference to his critics.
Whelan said he didn’t think the billboards and bus shelters had raised his public profile at all.
“It wasn’t even a consideration and I never intended it. People seeing my name or when I go on TV for a press conference, I don’t think it helps me at all,” he remarked.
Whelan credited this year’s spending increase on the ads to a $25,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency specifically for advertising purposes. He said he made the decision to further ramp up advertising in January because of “concerning projections” about the City of Chester’s homicide rate – the city saw five homicides that month, compared to 26 in all of 2016.
“We pushed the panic button in January,” he said. “We projected that through the summer, when we know we’re going to see an increase in violence in the hot summer months.”
Whelan said he directed an additional $28,000 in supplemental funds for advertising from his office’s civil asset forfeiture proceeds – a controversial practice in which law enforcement derives operating revenue from seizing cash, homes or cars from individuals merely suspected of a crime.
“No taxpayer dollars went towards these ads,” the DA said.
Contracting records show Whelan signing off on ad buys with Catalyst Outdoor and Clear Channel in early April, just weeks before the May 18 primary. Private advertisers offer their services to government agencies at a discount, so the DAO’s ad buy went far – $43,000 covered weeks of ads on seven digital billboards and one conventional billboard. Another $8,300 went to posters on about a dozen bus shelters.
Top: Whelan's 2017 ad purchase included dramatically enlarging his name and title, compared to the 2016 campaign, bottom
Additionally, $2,000 went to design work, mostly to enlarge and rearrange Whelan’s name.
The DA initially asserted that his office had gotten calls about his name being too hard to read.
“It came through public relations, just people talking about the billboard. I asked our anti-violence task force and they said it was hard to read, too,” he said. “Sometimes you go down I-95 and it will say: ‘Wawa has free coffee,’ but you can barely read it. So, somebody sat down and enlarged ours to make it more readable.”
Yet in an email exchange with his communications director, Emily Harris, Whelan reviews a draft version of the 2017 billboard which is essentially identical to those run in prior years.
“This looks good,” Whelan wrote, in March. “Should we make my name a little bigger?”
About a week later, Whelan wrote Harris again.
“Did she ever get back to you about making the font bigger on the straw purchase billboard?” he asks, referring to a graphic designer employed by Catalyst.
The graphic designer later replied that she had increased the font size as much as possible without changing the layout of the original ad.
The ads ran through early July. Whelan said he did not believe his office has entered into any similar contracts since. He claimed the timing around the primary was purely coincidental, and that his office deliberately cycled the ads.
“We go a few months on and a few months off,” Whelan explained. “There’s no rhyme or reason, but if we keep it going, we know we’re paying for it and it sits there day in and day out. You become immune to the sign after a while.”
On the ad placements in predominantly Democratic areas of Delaware County – mainly inner ring suburbs of Philadelphia and outlying areas around Chester – Whelan said he had sought to place the billboards in areas with high rates of gun violence.
He said it was also coincidental that his office first ran similar billboards in 2015 – albeit far fewer than in 2017 – when his name was being floated for a Republican Attorney General candidacy. The term-limited DA said he was never interested in running for that office.
Today, Whelan remains locked in competition for a judicial seat. His actions drew sharp criticism from his local Democratic opponents.
“This is classic waste, fraud and abuse. This is what the Republicans claim to be against,” said Joe Corrigan, a spokesperson for the Delaware County Democratic Party. “Whelan’s face was there. His name was there and his name was on the ballot. Basically, Whelan used $50,000 of taxpayer money to support his campaign for judge.”
Corrigan called for Whelan’s campaign to immediately reimburse the DAO for these costs.
“If he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with this, then he doesn't deserve to be DA or judge. If he does think it’s wrong, his campaign should reimburse the taxpayers,” he said.
Whelan scoffed at the suggestion.
“Why? When did I ever put a billboard up that said ‘Vote for me’?” he asked. “I significantly lost the Democratic primary, anyway. I wasn’t even close.”