Corbett, Democratic opponents try to top one another with calls for gift ban


By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

The next governor of Pennsylvania might have to look the gift horse in the mouth.

After a string of apparent ethics violations across two branches of state government, Gov. Tom Corbett and the various Democratic candidates hoping to defeat him in November are speaking out in favor a gift ban and other changes to state laws regarding ethics rules for public officials.

NO CASH GIFTS: Corbett wants to ban cash gifts to lawmakers and state officials.

Pennsylvania law allows just about any kind of gift to be given to any state official, as long as presents valued at more than $250 are reported once per year. The annual gift disclosures filed by state lawmakers and members of the executive branch frequently turn up gifts ranging from jewelry to tickets to sporting events to all-expense-paid vacations, but even more blunt offerings like envelopes of cash are technically legal.

Corbett thinks that last part needs to be changed.

“Especially in light of recent allegations, a full ban on cash gifts is in order,” said Bill Pitman, a spokesman for the governor’s re-election campaign. “The governor supports full transparency and will work with the Legislature to review and update the rules on the books in order to restore the people’s trust in their government.”

It’s a good time to be talking to voters about ending cash gifts. Just three weeks ago it was revealed that four state lawmakers were caught on camera accepting cash and other gifts like jewelry from an informant for the state attorney general’s office who was posing as a lobbyist.

No charges have been brought because the attorney general dropped the case for a variety of reasons, including questions about whether the evidence would have been admissible in court.

JUST SAY ‘NO THANKS’: Democratic candidate, and former secretary of the Department of Revenue, Tom Wolf says his administration would have a strict “no gifts” rule.

At the same time, the state Ethics Commission finalized an investigation into former members of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, who accepted typical political gifts like free golf outings and expensive liquor from vendors doing business with the state. Again, no charges have been filed.

But even without criminal charges, the news has caused public outrage at apparently corrupt state officials.

Corbett’s proposal of a ban on cash gifts would only close part of the state’s problem with ethically challenged officials. Other candidates are calling for different approaches.

Tom Wolf, the York County businessman who currently leads the Democratic primary field, would institute a full ban on gifts to members of his staff and wants to change the state disclosure law so all gifts of more than $25 to elected officials have to be reported.

Mark Nicastre, Wolf’s campaign spokesman, called Corbett’s cash-gift ban “a half measure.”

“Of course, public servants shouldn’t take cash, but we need a more comprehensive policy to restore the public’s trust in government,” he said. “We need to change the culture of Harrisburg and give Pennsylvania a fresh start, and we can’t do it with half-measures.”

In fact, Wolf was ahead of the curve on this one. He proposed those changes in January, before the recent run of unethical gift-giving was made public – something his campaign has been more than happy to point out in the last two weeks.

HAVE AN ENFORCER: U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz would create a new cabinet-level position to enforce ethics laws and promote integrity, if she becomes governor.

HAVE AN ENFORCER: U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz would create a new cabinet-level position to enforce ethics laws and promote integrity, if she becomes governor.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-13th District, another Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, announced her own ethics reform plan, which includes a ban on gifts for executive branch employees and a new cabinet-level official known as a chief integrity officer, who would be responsible for promoting ethics and integrity in state government.

She would also work with the Legislature on crafting a ban on gifts for all state employees, including members of the state legislature.

But Schwartz has received free travel from lobbyists on several occasions — including trips to San Diego and Rio de Janero within the past year — according to documents filed as part of the stricter congressional ethics and travel reporting requirements.

Rob McCord, the state treasurer and another Democratic hopeful, supports a gift ban for public officials and says the state should place limits on campaign contributions.

“Treasurer McCord believes that any elected official who takes cash or gifts with the intention of enriching themselves and not reporting it is engaging in an act of corruption and should be held accountable,” said Mark Nevin, a campaign spokesman. “Elected officials should be held to a higher, not a lower standard of ethics.”

But McCord also has benefited from the state’s gift laws. Public records show that he has taken several free trips to conferences since being elected treasurer in 2008.

MORE ACCOUNTABILITY: If state officials are taking gifts to enrich themselves, they need to be held accountable, McCord's campaign says.

MORE ACCOUNTABILITY: If state officials are taking gifts to enrich themselves, they need to be held accountable, Rob McCord’s campaign says.

Corbett has received plenty of free goodies from lobbyists and campaign donors, too.

He and his wife got tickets to the Philadelphia Academy of Music Concert and Ball in 2010 (each valued at $5,000, according to disclosures filed with the state) from Blank Rome LLP, a well-connected Philadelphia-based law firm.

Corbett also got free tickets to the 2011 Winter Classic, an annual outdoor professional hockey game played that year in Pittsburgh, thanks to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. In July of the same year, business executive Charles Moran spent more than $1,400 to fly the Corbetts on a private jet for a four-day vacation in Rhode Island.

Those were just a few of the $11,000 in gifts Corbett and his wife received from businesses executives, lobbyists and campaign donors in 2010 and 2011, according to a Philadelphia Daily News analysis of state records. After taking those presents, Corbett would have a hard time calling for a full ban on gifts.

But he’s hardly the only one taking advantage of the state gift laws. From 2007 through 2011, lawmakers reported more than $117,000 in gifts, according to a separate analysis done by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

None of these tallies include gifts valued at less than $250, which don’t have to be reported at all.

Ten states have full bans on gifts for politicians, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 31 states have monetary limits, ranging from $3 per day in Iowa to the Texas limit of $500 for gifts and another $500 for entertainment per year.

According to NCSL, Pennsylvania is one of just 10 states with no monetary limits on gifts, though Pennsylvania law specifies that gifts may not be given or received if they are intended to influence decisions.

But state lawmakers might make changes well before the gubernatorial election is settled.

The state Senate could ban members from taking cash gifts as early by changing internal rules, while members of the state House are lining up legislation to make several potential changes to state ethics laws.