Again, lawmakers consider changes in wake of scandal
HARRISBURG - Reacting to the parade of legislative leaders going to jail during the Bonusgate scandal, the House and Senate passed new chamber rules several years ago to limit political activity on legislative time, but didn't pass legislation to give those reforms the force of law.
Capitol activist Tim Potts used a memorable phrase then to describe rules as the "junk food" of government.
In fact, the only laws added to the books in response to one of Pennsylvania's biggest corruption scandals were two sunshine laws, an open records law and one establishing a website to post information about government spending.
As state lawmakers confront their latest corruption scandal stemming from an abortive sting operation, they are turning again to rules changes to address revelations that four House lawmakers took large cash gifts from a confidential informant for state prosecutors but didn't report them.
The House Bipartisan Management Committee adopted a rule last week that bans House lawmakers and employees from accepting gifts of cash with an exception for personal reasons when a family member or close friend who isn't a lobbyist gives them, or a political campaign contribution.
The Senate plans to vote this week on a new rule for senators and staff as well as a general bill applying to lawmakers banning cash gifts of U.S. and foreign currency as well as money orders, checks, gift cards and certificates and prepaid debit and credit cards.
Caucus spokesmen say adopting a rule is the quickest and most direct way to respond to the sting scandal.
"The leaders felt we needed to do something quickly and immediately," said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-28, Pittsburgh. Enacting a law involves both the Senate and governor weighing in, he added.
Pennsylvania's ethics law is considered weak due to the high monetary thresholds for reporting gifts and outside income. Public officials can take unlimited gifts of unlimited value from lobbyists and individuals as long as they are publicly disclosed above a monetary threshold to the state Ethics Commission.
They must disclose any tangible gift valued at $250 or more in a given year and transportation, lodging and hospitality with a total value of $650 or more in a year.
What's needed is a law setting a total ban on gifts to public officials, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.
He said a chamber rule banning cash gift lacks the force of law and, therefore, spurs questions about how it can be enforced.
"People don't like to stir up trouble for their colleagues," added Kauffman.
The main vehicle for enforcing chamber rule violations are the House and Senate Ethics Committees. The House panel is reportedly investigating the four members caught up in the sting, but the last time it was apparently active outside of regular ethics training was in 2004 when it cleared a lawmaker of charges of ghost voting.
The Senate Ethics Committee dismissed ethics complaints brought by activists against former Sen. Robert Mellow in 2009 on a technicality. The only reason this is known is because the activists who filed the complaints disclosed it.
Pennsylvania already has a law making it illegal to take a gift in exchange for a vote, said Miskin.
"That is called a bribe," he added.
(Robert Swift is Harrisburg bureau chief for Times-Shamrock Communications newspapers. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)