Masser among legislators getting donations from district office landlords
HARRISBURG - Thirty-two state Senators and House members from the region spent $706,000 leasing their district offices last year, and 14 of them, including Rep. Kurt Masser, R-107, rented from landlords who contributed to their election campaigns, a Times-Shamrock Newspapers analysis found.
Campaign finance reports show the contributions were as little as $100 to as much as $31,000.
Masser's was on the lower end at $750. That's what the Ralpho Township lawmaker received in contributions from Mark, Dean, Bruce and William Anskis, owners of Daryl Enterprises, the landlord of his office at 467 Industrial Park Road, off Route 487 between Paxinos and Elysburg.
Also, Masser pays the most for district office rent among 23 House members from Northeastern Pennsylvania at $25,200 per year. That includes $21,000 annually ($1,750 per month) for the Daryl Enterprises office and $4,200 annually ($350 per month) to the Borough of Danville for space there.
Masser said upon election to his first term in 2011-12 he wanted to locate his office in Elysburg, the center of his district, but it was difficult to find office space.
He said the contributions from the office landlords reflect their support of his political positions.
"They are local contributors who back what I stand for," he said.
The practice is allowed under Senate and House rules, but it raises an eyebrow with at least one government watchdog.
Pennsylvania should upgrade its campaign finance law to ban contributions from individuals who have state contracts, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. These leases qualify as contracts, he said.
"We ought to put restrictions in the campaign finance law that you can't take campaign contributions from people who have contracts with the state," said Kauffman.
Lawmakers say these contributions should present no problem as long as they are publicly reported. They say in many cases the landlords are well-known and active in their communities.
"We don't have a concern with landlords making legal contributions as long as the contributions are properly reported," said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-33, Allegheny County.
Lawmakers handle a lot of constituent work in district offices, from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation motor vehicle paperwork to helping eligible senior citizens apply for property tax and rent rebates.
"The district office network provides taxpayers and residents a one-stop shop for state government services," said Rep. Mike Carroll, D-118, Avoca.
$6 million statewide
Across the state, the total for district office leases last year was $6 million, the analysis found.
The newspaper filed a Right to Know request to obtain amounts spent on 442 office leases in 2013 by the 253 Senate and House lawmakers. The 442 leases may not include all satellite offices, particularly those rented for limited use.
"Full-time legislators are armed with mail privileges, public service announcements and a budget for mass mailings, newsletters and travel and lodging. And they spend $6 million annually to be outfitted with district offices," said activist Eric Epstein, coordinator of Rock The Capital.
Statewide, Sen. Andrew Dinniman, D-West Chester, spent the most on office leases last year at $82,388; Rep. William Keller, D-Philadelphia, spent the least at $4,200, according to the analysis.
Among the Northeast delegation, Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Bethlehem Township, spent the most among senators at $55,891. Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, spent the least at $32,985. In comparison to Masser's $25,200 at the top of the region's House list, Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Tamaqua, spent the least at $10,200.
Blake got $31,000
Here are some of the other contribution-landlord findings:
- Sen. John Blake, D-22, Archbald, received $31,000 in campaign contributions from department store magnate Al Boscov since 2010. Blake pays $2,400 a month to lease his Scranton district office at 409 Lackawanna Ave. from Scranton Mall Associates, of which Boscov is president.
- Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-114, Taylor, received more than $7,000 in contributions from landlord Michael G. Yeager since 2010. He pays $1,000 a month to lease his office at 802 S. Main St., Taylor.
- Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20, Lehman Twp., received more than $10,000 in contributions from Dallas shopping mall owner Alan Finlay and his family since 2006. She pays $2,268 a month to lease her office at 22 Dallas Shopping Center, Memorial Highway, Dallas.
In 2011, the Senate adopted a rule to strengthen district office leases following revelations that former Sen. Bob Mellow of Archbald directed more than $200,000 in state taxpayer-financed rent on his Peckville district office to Brad Inc., a company he partly owned. The rule puts limits on any financial interests that senators can have in district offices. The rule requires a senator to provide written verification that he or she or an immediate family member has no financial interest in an office.
The Senate has no plans to put limits on landlord contributions.
Current law provides for transparency on both ends, said Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Senate Republican caucus, referring to public disclosure laws governing campaign contributions and district office leases.
But Rep. Kevin Haggerty, D-112, Dunmore, is introducing a bill to ban lawmakers from leasing offices from individuals who have contributed $500 or more to their campaigns. Haggerty said he can't receive contributions from his main landlord, which is Dunmore Borough.
However, that wouldn't stop a Dunmore official from contributing as an individual to Haggerty or other lawmakers. In 2012, Dunmore Council vice president Paul Nardozzi contributed $650 and Carmen Scrimalli, the husband of Dunmore councilwoman Carol Scrimalli, gave $100.
Haggerty said he is proposing the $500 threshold as a way to stop lawmakers from getting contributions from wealthy individuals who own real estate and leasing office space from them.
Allowing lawmakers to receive campaign contributions from landlords is an abuse of incumbency, said veteran Capitol activist Gene Stilp. Stilp has visited dozens of district offices in recent years to call attention to various issues such as the legislative pay raise and a utility rate hike. A former congressional candidate, he is seeking the Democratic nomination in the May 20 primary for a state House district in Dauphin County.
Different in House, Senate
The Senate chief clerk negotiates lease rent and terms for that chamber. The Senate elects the chief clerk, who works under direction of the president pro tempore.
The factors considered in leases include costs, accessibility, size and convenience to constituents, said Arneson.
"In our experience, having a central office - the senate chief clerk - negotiate leases across the state is better from a cost and efficiency standpoint than having 50 separate offices negotiate those leases," he said. "Additionally, having a level of uniformity in the leases makes it easier to manage district office operations."
A Senate management committee has directed the chief clerk to obtain a reasonable rent in line with the local real estate market, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-43, Pittsburgh.
"The chief clerk is always looking to strike the best deal as it relates to office space," said Costa. "We have limits on square footage. We are only allowed so many offices."
A 2012 order by the state Ethics Commission regarding Mellow's Peckville office shed some light on the chief clerk's role. The commission ordered Mellow to pay $21,000 as restitution for taxpayer-financed rent that went to Brad Inc.
The order notes that Mellow discussed the issue with Senate staffers in April 2007, when the senator's interest in Brad Inc. had emerged as a potential ethics act concern.
The Senate gave Mellow the options of having Brad Inc. sell the building, moving his office to another location or divesting his interest in Brad Inc. Mellow decided to keep the office and attempt to sell the property. The Senate made rental payments to Brad Inc. for 17 more months until the building was sold in 2008. The $21,000 in restitution covered Mellow's share of Brad Inc. rental payments during that 17-month period.
The House caucuses handle matters differently, without a major role for the chief clerk.
"The House Democratic Caucus helps members review, draft and negotiate lease language," said Patton. "We often can also help them negotiate better rates and terms. Members are very conscious that they are using taxpayer money to provide services to constituents and they are always looking for ways to cut and contain expenses."
GOP lawmakers negotiate their leases, but caucus lawyers review each lease, said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh.
Still, it is difficult to determine if individual lease costs are reasonable given the disparities in local real estate markets, and the search for offices that comply with the Americans for Disabilities Act, for example. Some leases provide for annual rent increases pegged to various criteria.
Lawmakers describe process
Sens. Blake and Baker said having the chief clerk handle lease negotiations provides a buffer between them and the landlord.
Blake said he told the chief clerk he was interested in an office in downtown Scranton. The chief clerk looked at several locations before selecting a suite in the Oppenheim Building, which is owned by Scranton Mall Associates. Blake said he wasn't involved in the lease negotiations.
Boscov made contributions in his first Senate race in 2010, Blake said, but added he hasn't solicited contributions from him in recent years.
Baker said the Finlays helped her first 2006 Senate campaign by offering space for a campaign office. She decided to use the Dallas district office of her predecessor, the late Sen. Charles Lemmond, because of its location and access for disabled individuals. Finlay was the landlord of that office.
"The district office has been in the same location since 1991," she said.
Likewise, Kavulich said the bulk of contributions from Yeager represent in-kind contributions tied to a campaign office when he first ran for his House seat in 2010. Kavulich said he converted that office into his district office because of its good location and plenty of parking spaces.
Try municipal buildings
Stilp suggested that, when possible, offices should be located in municipal buildings.
Northeast lawmakers rent offices in nine local government buildings. Some are occupied daily and some just a few days a month.
Local governments receive rent just like private landlords, and it can get pricey.
For example, the main office of Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23, Williamsport, is owned by Lycoming County. This lease at 330 Pine St., Williamsport, cost $2,734 a month in 2013, and $2,591 a month in 2011. It is a key reason why Yaw has the second highest total district office cost among Northeast Pennsylvania senators at nearly $49,000.
Yaw is a former Lycoming County solicitor, but he said that had nothing to do with picking the office. It's the same office used by his predecessor, former Sen. Roger Madigan, he said.
"I needed office space," he said. "It was there. People knew about it."
Stilp suggested a better way to handle leases is for the state Department of General Services to award them to the lowest qualified bidder.
"The office leases should be given by competitive bid," he said.