Activist: PA gifts law should be best in country after ethical lapses
By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Not even a complimentary cup of coffee. And no free pie, either.
That’s how strict good-government activist Gene Stilp says Pennsylvania should be when it comes to setting rules about lawmakers accepting gifts from lobbyists and others seeking to influence public business.
“It has to be the best law in the country,” Stilp said this week.
Stilp likely won’t get what he wants — not right away, at least — but proposals from several lawmakers could be a start.
State Sens. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, and Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, have proposed an absolute ban on cash gifts for legislators.
Their legislation comes in the wake of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s explosive report that Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut down a sting investigation that ensnared several lawmakers caught on tape accepting money. Kane has said the investigation was botched.
That was after three former officials from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board violated the state Ethics Act after they accepted lavish gifts from vendors and failed to report them as required by law.
CASHING OUT: Several Pennsylvania lawmakers believe it’s time to outlaw cash gifts for legislators as more ethics issues pile up in the Keystone State.
Asked which instances influenced the idea to ban cash gifts, Smucker said “all of the above.”
“The public ought to be able to have confidence that legislators are there to serve in the best interests of their communities and the public and the citizens of Pennsylvania, and not for their own benefit,” Smucker said. “That’s just not the case today.”
The Legislature can partly blame itself for some of that public cynicism. Pennsylvania has among the softest laws regarding gifts in the country and current rules favor disclosure rather than prohibition.
Lawmakers must disclose all gifts valued at more than $250 that are given to them by someone other than a family member or friend. They also must report transportation, lodging and hospitality valued at more than $650.
In recent years, gifts have allowed lawmakers to cheer on the hometown Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl and to become international travelers with trips to Turkey and beyond.
Even to Smucker it still seems unfathomable that lawmakers could accept cold, hard cash from lobbyists. His and Baker’s legislation would ban cash gifts, which would include U.S. and foreign currency, money orders, checks, gifts cards and gift certificates, as well as pre-paid debit and credit cards.
State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, also has said he plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting cash from a registered lobbyist. It also would ban lawmakers from accepting cash campaign contributions above $50.
It can be difficult to detect whether cash gifts haven’t been properly disclosed, Leach said.
“It is critical that there be the maximum possible transparency so that the public may know who is attempting to influence their lawmakers. Cash in envelopes is antithetical to this transparency,” he said in a news release.
The Senate just started the flurry of action. In addition to proposals from that chamber, there are at least three House members seeking the same outcome.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, also wants support for legislation that would prohibit lawmakers, as well as public officials and employees that are subject to the state’s Ethics Act, from accepting cash gifts, unless they are from close family members and given in a personal nature.
State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, has signed on as the first co-sponsor of that measure, while state Rep. Warren Kampf, R-Chester, also has asked for support to change the state Ethics Act.
The state House Ethics Committee also could investigate the situation that has arisen in Philadelphia.
Though the chairman, state Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, wouldn’t confirm or deny the committee is probing the matter, he said he’s “always disturbed” by situations that could undermine an institution that’s existed since the days of Ben Franklin.
“Obviously anytime there’s an issue involving the conduct of House members, I think we always get concerned about how that’ll be perceived by folks,” Petri said.
Smucker said he hopes a ban on cash gifts could be the first step to broader reform, but Stilp said he’s wondered what has taken lawmakers so long to get to this point.
Now, after saying the Legislature has shown itself incapable of reforming itself after the midnight pay raise, the subsequent “Bonusgate” scandal and the controversy over gifts, Stilp is planning an April 23 protest at the Capitol to promote action.
“Pennsylvania is in the Dark Ages of reform, if you will, and everything has to be changed,” Stilp said. “It’s medieval the way they operate here.”
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.