State lawmakers and Attorney General Kathleen Kane had distinct and telling responses to a Philadelphia Inquirer report that four House members accepted cash gifts in a sting operation. The House and Senate acted quickly to police their own, passing legislation prohibiting lawmakers from taking cash gifts. Attorney General Kane chose not to prosecute the four legislators, despite admitting at a press conference that crimes were committed.
The Inquirer story broke in mid-March. Less than a month later, the Senate approved a bill and a resolution banning the gifts for Senate members, all elected officials, and state employees. Additionally, the House’s internal governing body, the Bipartisan Management Committee, banned cash gifts for all members.
Other related reforms are in the pipeline as well. Just after the Inquirer story broke, State Rep Seth Grove (R-York) introduced legislation that would authorize the appointment of an Independent Counsel to investigate even suggestions of legislative corruption. Grove said his legislation would, in effect, place a permanent watchdog on the General Assembly and state government. “I’m tired of hearing corruption and Pennsylvania in the same sentence,” Grove said referring to the Philadelphia sting operation.
PMA Executive Director David N. Taylor said “public integrity is paramount, so it is heartening to see this initial swift response from the General Assembly. We urge all public officials to support transparency, openness, and accountability.”
An excellent example of reform can be found in recently introduced legislation by State Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny). It requiring elected officials to provide receipts for all expenses. Currently, lawmakers are reimbursed a flat rate for travel to Harrisburg and committee meetings to cover meals and lodging. The rate, now at $159 daily, is tied to the maximum allowable reimbursement rate for federal employees. “This is one we should just get off the table,” Vulakovich said. “Voters don’t want us taking unvouchered expenses. Let’s just get rid of it.” (Note: As a House member, Vulakovich worked for the end of a car pool for members. He also led the charge to have House members contribute to their health care plans. An effort to end the unvouchered expenses there failed.)
For her part, Kathleen Kane has tried to beat back accusations that her inaction involving the sting was politically motivated – she is a Democrat as are all four Philadelphia House members. She insisted that the operation, started under then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, was shoddy, making it impossible to prosecute. She’s added that it was tainted by racism since all four members involved are African American. The trouble is that two stories published last week, one in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and another on PennLive.com, quote sources saying the investigation was racially diverse as it went far beyond the four lawmakers.
“In all, according to new information presented to PennLive Wednesday, informant Tyron Ali bought dinners, had drinks with, or simply had conversations with more than 50 public officials or lobbyists – and many of them were white."
“In a more specific accounting than has been revealed to date, sources familiar with the case said Ali had introductory meets with at least 51 people: including 27 state representatives, five state senators, 11 lobbyists and eight Philadelphia officials."
“Twenty-five were African-American, 23 were white and three were Latinos. Most were Democrats, but at least eight were Republicans.”
Meanwhile, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams asked Kane to hand over all of the original evidence as well as any internal memos, letters, and e-mails from her office pertaining to the case.
But Williams stopped short of promising any prosecutions, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that Kane's criticism of the investigation could undermine the case.