Week in review: PA Legislature deals with ethical issues


By PA Independent Staff

This week brought more fallout from a sting operation in Philadelphia that ensnared several public officials before Attorney General Kathleen Kane shut it down; she argued the investigation was too flawed to proceed.

Still, lawmakers responded in part by proposing a ban on cash gifts to lawmakers in an attempt to shore up ethics rules and help change the perception of Harrisburg.

And in one story from York, some students found themselves silenced at a public meeting because of their age.

Here’s a look back at this week’s coverage:

LOOKING BACK: The Pennsylvania Legislature is trying to find ways to move past ethical lapses that have hit its own members and the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

Independent counsel unlikely to probe shut-down sting operation

The state House may probe potential ethics violations by some of its own members, but it’s unlikely an independent investigator will be appointed to examine the case.

It’s all part of a tangled political corruption scandal that broke into public view when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Kane shut down a sting operation targeting Philadelphia political officials — including, allegedly, four members of the House Democratic caucus. There have been calls for an investigation into the sting operation, Kane’s claims it was botched by the previous attorney general and alleged bribes to some lawmakers.

House leaders from both parties indicated in a letter to the House Ethics Commission it would get the necessary resources to conduct an investigation, if it so chooses.

But the House commission would review only violations of ethics rules and codes of conduct that apply to lawmakers, and would not be able to examine potential criminal offenses.

With so many things the House’s internal commission would be unable to do, it’s no surprise there have been calls for an independent review by outside counsel.

Zach Stalberg, executive director of the Committee of 70, a Philadelphia-based good-government group, said there should be an independent investigator appointed by the House.

“Frankly, given the rash of political corruption cases involving state legislators, it would be hard for the public to have confidence in a probe of its members by the state House Ethics Committee,” he said last week.

There’s just one problem. The state law allowing the General Assembly to appoint an independent prosecutor expired in 2003. It wasn’t renewed because it hadn’t been used in a long time because of persistent fears that it could be used for partisan purposes.

Read the full story here.

Lawmakers considering banning cash gifts

First, three former officials with the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board violated the state Ethics Law when they failed to disclose the lavish gifts that vendors heaped upon them.

Then there was a messy situation in Philadelphia, where several House members are alleged to have accepted cash in the sting operation that Kane shut down.

Both instances prompted a flurry of proposals to ban cash gifts for lawmakers and possibly other officials covered by the state’s ethics law. One good-government activist, Gene Stilp, said Pennsylvania would need the country’s strongest law on gift giving to bring it out of the “Dark Ages.”

“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. That’s just not the case today,” state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said after joining state Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, in proposing a ban on cash gifts for lawmakers.

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.

Read the full story here.

Philadelphia school district suspends seniority rules

When it comes to staffing teachers in Pennsylvania public schools, “last in, first out” is a strict rule.

But Philadelphia is using the power of its School Reform Commission to waive the law that makes seniority the basis for hiring, firing and reassigning educators.

Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite on Monday announced the new staffing guidelines for the 2014-15 school year as part of his Action Plan 2.0.

To make students the priority and give principals flexibility, the school district says it will no longer use seniority as the primary factor in placing teachers. But Philadelphia is using the power of its School Reform Commission to waive the law that makes seniority the basis for hiring, firing and reassigning educators.

Read the full story here.

ACLU blasts proposal to track prescription drugs

Legislation moving through the Pennsylvania Senate would allow prosecutors to rifle through prescription drug records as easily as police can search a student’s locker.

The proposal, Senate Bill 1180, would create an expanded prescription drug monitoring program and increase access for pharmacists and health-care practitioners who prescribe medication.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania doesn’t like it.

The biggest issue, the ACLU said, is the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee amended the bill to allow prosecutors to seize the prescription drug records under the standard of reasonable suspicion, the same threshold that must be met to conduct searches in public schools or prisons, where residents have a lower expectation of privacy.

“One would reasonably believe that Pennsylvanians have a heightened expectation of privacy in their medication records,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “This Senate committee clearly thinks otherwise. This vote implies that there are no barriers to the government collecting and observing a person’s prescription data, which is a window into their medical history.”

The Pennsylvania Medical Society, while citing lingering concerns about patient privacy, supports the legislation.

Read the full story here.

York city school board finds itself in free speech fiasco

If you’re a student at a York city school board meeting, forget your First Amendment rights.

Earlier this month, the central Pennsylvania school district restricted public comment at a meeting to exclude anyone younger than 18, an apparent violation of the state’s Sunshine Law, which allows residents to have a reasonable opportunity to voice their concerns at open proceedings.

“There is clear precedent from the Supreme Court holding that students have First Amendment rights, and those rights don’t disappear when they enter a school or participate in a school function,” said Melissa Melewsky, media law counsel at the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association.

Read the full story here.

Wagner win emboldens hardline conservatives

Grassroots conservatives celebrated after Republican Scott Wagner won a write-in campaign for a state Senate seat earlier this month, calling it evidence that rank-and-file Republicans are fed up with the establishment GOP.

Campaigning on proposals to reform Harrisburg and rein in state spending, Wagner beat Democratic candidate Linda Small and state Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, who had the county party’s endorsement and big help from the Senate Republican Campaign Committee in a race that turned nasty quickly.

Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that favors limited government, believes it’s proof the days of the party anointing its next lawmakers could be coming to an end.

“It’s just further evidence that the process is becoming more decentralized,” Knepper said. “And that’s a good thing because you have someone who is now not beholden to Senate leadership.”

G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, acknowledged the schism within the Republican Party, but said he isn’t convinced conservative voters are ready to rebel en masse.

“This election had a set of peculiarities that we don’t know yet what it means,” Madonna said. “I don’t think you can predict a future based on that one.”

Read the full story here.