Report: Former PA lawmaker used per diem to buy house

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

A Harrisburg-area TV station reports that former state Rep. James Wansacz, D-Lackawanna, who bought a home in the capital with taxpayer-paid per diem payments, is seeking to sell the house and pocket $52,000 in profit.

SOLID INVESTMENT: Former state Rep. James Wansacz, D-Lackawanna, will make more than $50,000 if he sells a house that taxpayers helped him buy.

In his 10 years as a state representative, Wansacz apparently abused the per diem system — meant to reimburse lawmakers for the cost of travel, food and housing while they are in Harrisburg for legislative session — to pay the mortgage on a $72,000 home on South Street in 2003. That home is now on the market, according to CBS-21.

From CBS’ Chris Pabst:

From 2000 to 2010, Wansacz represented the 114th House District, which is near Scranton — about 130 miles from Harrisburg.

Through Right-to-Know requests, CBS 21 learned the taxpayer was pretty good to him. In his 10 years, he amassed a $72,702 pension, and still gets $25,457 a year in health benefits.

During his time in office, he collected $162,904 in per diem to cover his expenses – which would include his mortgage. A few weeks ago, Wansacz put the three-bedroom house on the market for $124,900 – a $52,900 profit.

Lawmakers are only allowed to collect per diem if they live more than 50 miles from the state Capitol, but that rule excludes second homes. Wansacz is not the first state lawmaker to take advantage of the loophole.

The payments are given at a rate determined by the IRS for mileage and travel, not actual expenses, and rates vary based on geographical location. Lawmakers can collect between $50 and $163 per day. Under IRS rules, per diem allowances are not taxable wages.

When asked in 2010 about his use of per diem to pay the mortgage on the house, Wansacz told the Hazelton Standard-Speaker that “using per diems to pay mortgages is no different than being reimbursed for hotel rooms or apartments.”

Except for the one big difference: Now that taxpayers have paid his mortgage for 10 years, Wansacz can sell the house – as he appears to be doing – and keep the profit for himself.

All 253 members of the General Assembly make more than $80,000 in annual salary, but many of them take home a tidy pile of cash in per diem expenses each year, too. Though they have to submit monthly reports requesting the payments, there seems to be little oversight of the system.

A PA Independent investigation found more than $100,000 in per diem payments in 2011 were submitted for work done on weekends. Lawmakers are generally in Harrisburg on Monday through Wednesday, with rare exceptions.

During 2012, lawmakers collected more than $1.3 million in per diem for days when the Legislature was not even in session, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review analysis.

An Associated Press investigation last year found lawmakers pocketed more than $4 million during the two-year legislative session in 2011-12.

Wansacz was first elected in a special election in 2000 and was re-elected four times before retiring from the General Assembly in 2010. He was elected to the Lackawanna County Board of Commissioners in 2011.

According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, most states have some sort of expense reimbursement program for lawmakers – though Pennsylvania’s daily payments are higher than most states.

Five states – New Jersey, Ohio, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Rhode Island – do not allow lawmakers to claim per diem payments, according to NCSL.

Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

The post Report: Former PA lawmaker used per diem to buy house appeared first on Watchdog.org.

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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