Reform-minded activists deliver cash ‘bribes’ in Pennsylvania Capitol

IF YOU CAN’T BEAT ‘EM, JOIN ‘EM: After years of pushing for a gift ban, activists such as Gene Stilp have resorted to their own form of ‘bribery’ to prompt reform.

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — For about a decade, activists for government reform have tried unsuccessfully to persuade Pennsylvania lawmakers and two governors to ban gifts.

On Tuesday, they started speaking in cash, though none of the sort distributed by the Federal Reserve.

Instead, the Bank of Gene Stilp, Eric Epstein and Dennis Baylor spent the lunch hour delivering “Corbucks” — named in honor of Gov. Tom Corbett — to the governor’s office and the offices of legislative leaders in the state Capitol. The $1,000 bills proudly displayed the motto of “IN GRAFT WE TRUST” and were marked “illegal tender.”

“Eric, I never thought we’d stoop so low as to use bribery to get a bill passed,” Stilp, a regular reform advocate at the state Capitol and a candidate for a state House seat, said to Epstein, founder of the good-government group Rock the Capital.

Epstein said reformers want to be effective, too. Hence the bribes, part of a push for a total gift ban for all three branches of government. Prohibiting elected officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists isn’t a hard concept, Epstein said, but it has stalled because of a “culture of corruption,” which resists change and is left unpunished at the polls.

“You’re dealing with a Legislature that couldn’t pass gas at a frat party,” he said.

History suggests that state officials, while perusing a menu of gift reforms during the past eight years, often lose their appetite for change before it comes time to place an order.

There’s been little to no action, even after nine organizations banded together in 2006 and made a ban on gifts and entertainment the first goal in their Roadmap to Reform. All the while, several embarrassing ethical lapses continue to stain the state’s reputation.

Lowlights from a report by Rock the Capital include:

  • Board members from the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency spent about three-quarter of a million dollars from 2000 to 2005 on trips to resorts and expenses such as culinary classes, falconry lessons and expensive cigars.
  • State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille and Justice Tom Saylor in 2012 accepted a trip to Puerto Rico courtesy of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, setting up potential conflicts of interest with attorneys who appear before the state’s highest court.
  • And Corbett, who campaigned on a call for reform in Harrisburg, joined his wife on a 2012 trip to France valued at $10,856. While there, he accepted a fountain pen worth $250.

So far, 2014 hasn’t been a banner year, either.

In March, the state Ethics Commission found that three former officials from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board violated state law when they accepted lavish gifts and golf outings from vendors doing business with the agency.

Several Philadelphia lawmakers were caught on tape accepting cash in a sting operation that Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut down, contending it was deeply flawed.

Among the dispiriting headlines are signs of progress.

Two state senators have renewed the call for a Public Integrity Commission to root out corruption. A previous push for such an agency died three years ago.

‘CORBUCKS’ FLOW IN CAPITOL: Activists Eric Epstein, left, and Gene Stilp deliver fake bribes to the office of House Majority Leader Mike Turzai on Tuesday. He wasn’t there, leaving a staffer in the awkward position of having to accept the gift.

The state Senate has passed legislation that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting cash gifts from lobbyists and others seeking to influence government — an allowable perk that remains even to the astonishment of some legislators. That bill, though, hasn’t cleared the House.

The state Senate is eyeing further reform, with state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, saying there’s a chance the state could be willing to go as far as Kentucky, which recently added a “no cup of coffee” provision that prohibits lobbyists and their employers from buying food or beverages for a legislator.

Stilp compared the flurry of action to a rainbow after a thunderstorm. It looks nice but it eventually fades.

Perhaps some Corbucks will spur lasting change this year. They were plentiful Tuesday as Stilp and Epstein played the roles of walking ATMs, leaving the “bribes” in places such as House Speaker Sam Smith’s office.

“Give us a call if he needs more,” Epstein said to a staffer. “We’ll print it up.”

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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