Turnpike charges put new focus on halting 'pay to play'
HARRISBURG - The filing of state criminal charges against former Senate Democratic Leader Robert J. Mellow and seven others this week puts a spotlight on an entrenched pay-to-play culture in Harrisburg in a way that few other recent events have.
State Attorney General Kathleen Kane and State Police Commissioner Frank Noonan expressed hope that the grand jury report leading to the charges will have a deterrent effect.
By holding state officials and businesses accountable for their actions in the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission case, other public officials will be less likely to conduct business as usual, said Noonan.
The grand jury report summarized the impact of the turnpike's pay-to-play culture this way: "Secret gifts of cash, travel, and entertainment, and the payment of substantial political contributions to designated public officials and political organizations, by private vendors and their consultants who have sought and been rewarded with multi-million dollar Turnpike contracts, have tainted and thoroughly corrupted the system."
In one example cited by Kane, Mellow intervened with turnpike officials to steer bond underwriting work to PNC Bank. PNC received a total of $2.4 million in underwriter fees from 2006 to 2012. Meanwhile, PNC spent several thousand dollars taking Mellow to New York Yankees games in various cities and spent $7,082 sponsoring a 2007 event at Sparks Steak House in New York City as Mellow weighed a run for governor.
PNC Bank has not been accused of illegal activity.
Government reformers think the best way to end pay to play is to enact state laws banning individuals who give political campaign contributions from obtaining state contracts and banning those getting contracts from making political campaign contributions.
"It's got to be the law of the land," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause. "Voters and taxpayers need protection."
But bills introduced in recent years with real teeth to attack pay to play went nowhere.
A group of senior House Republican lawmakers introduced bills in 2009 to prohibit sole-source contracts and emergency contracts going to campaign contributors at the state level and to give an existing board clear authority to approve all sole-source and emergency contracts in the legislative, executive and judicial branches.
Other proposals offered by the whole House GOP caucus called for banning contract awards for one year to an individual or corporation PAC that contributed to the campaign of the state official responsible for awarding the contract and a 10-day public review of contracts.
These bills surfaced at a time when House Republicans were in the minority and sharply critical of Democratic then-Gov. Ed Rendell's awarding of no-bid contracts.
Some of the most vocal proponents of the contract bans have since left the Legislature. A GOP-controlled statehouse enacted a law in 2011 to create the PennWATCH website where information is posted on state contracts and state employee salaries. The website became operational last December.
The lack of movement on the contract ban bills is deeply disappointing to activist Eric Epstein, cofounder of RocktheCapital.com. He had welcomed their introduction in 2009 as a real step to ending pay to play.
"The net result is Harrisburg still slithers around the way it always has," said Epstein.
House Majority Whip Stan Saylor, R-94, Red Lion, held hearings on state contracting practices during that earlier period when he chaired the caucus policy committee.
He said there is still interest among lawmakers in banning sole-source contracts to campaign contributors.
"I think it's something that's viable," added Saylor.