Cohen hits the books: $28,200 worth

Posted: April 02, 2006

State Rep. Mark Cohen left the Barnes & Noble near Harrisburg in March 2004 loaded down with 15 new titles, including Clinton and Me, a book by the former president's joke writer.

The bill: $303.

For him, money wasn't an object. He wasn't paying. You were.

Over the last two years, the state has reimbursed the veteran legislator $28,200 on bookstore spending sprees, a review of expense records shows. He spent $1,118 in September alone, making nine trips to bookstores.

This has allowed the Philadelphia Democrat to expand his personal library by more than 800 titles.

That's more than one book a day for the legislator who describes himself as "a voracious reader."

How voracious?

Cohen's book bill for 2004 and 2005 is more than what the Philadelphia School District spent to stock library shelves at the two high schools and two middle schools in his legislative district. The four schools, which have a combined enrollment of 5,000 students, spent $21,600 on books and periodicals in that two-year period, officials said.

Many of Cohen's fellow House members don't ask the state to pay for books they read, and for those who do, it's typically just a few a year, records show.

Cohen defended making taxpayers foot the bill, saying that the books - nearly all of them works of nonfiction - make him a better legislator.

"I try very hard to be informed on current events. I'm holding myself to standards of excellence," said Cohen. "I'm interested in knowing whatever I can about national issues. National issues affect Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is part of the nation."

Tim Potts, cofounder of Democracy Rising PA, a Harrisburg-based public integrity group, called it a blatant abuse of public dollars.

"These are personal expenses. What if he was a voracious swimmer? Would taxpayers buy him a swimming pool?" Potts asked. "If he was buying books for the sake of the commonwealth, then the books should be in the State Library."

Sometimes, one bookstore trip a day wasn't enough for Cohen.

On March 6, 2004, he made two separate stops, spending $151 and then $154 more. They were two of about 100 trips in which he spent $100 or more.

Cohen's taxpayer-subsidized library shows he's drawn to the "Social and Cultural Studies" section of bookstores.

There are scholarly works, such as Preachers of Hate: Islam and the War on America; policy books, for example, Comeback Cities: A Blueprint for Urban Neighborhood Revival; and biographies, such as Mark Twain: A Life.

Some are purely political: The Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of the Democrats' Desperate Fight to Reclaim Power.

"This is all reality-based. I'm a very reality-based legislator," he said. "I want to understand, at the best of my ability, the general trends that are impacting on our jobs as state legislators."

It's not only books.

Over the two years, Cohen has run up $3,050 in bills for magazines and newspapers.

Cohen, 56, the third-ranking Democrat in the state House, has long been known for a bulging expense account.

A 1990 story in the Philadelphia Daily News detailed his exorbitant spending habits under the headline: Cohen for Broke.

The Inquirer reported in February that Cohen spent more than any other legislator who attended the 2005 annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Seattle. While in the Pacific Northwest, Cohen attended not only that convention but two others, including one hosted by a national group of state government reporters. Taxpayers picked up the whole bill, $4,700, for the 10-day trip.

Cohen, who describes himself as a fast reader, said some books he merely skims, keying on indexes and chapter headings to focus on what interested him. Others, he reads cover to cover.

He keeps the books in a home he owns in Harrisburg or at his Capitol office.

What books would he recommend his colleagues read?

For Democrats, he would suggest Stupid White Men, Michael Moore's attack on the Bush administration. For the other side of the aisle, he would pick Who's Looking Out for You? by Bill O'Reilly.

It's difficult to see how some of Cohen's choices relate to politics and policy.

The public was billed for these, among other selections: The Little Book of Stress, AOL for Dummies, and Zen of Gambling, which explores a contrarian approach to sports betting.

The state also paid for Cohen's copy of The Book of Positive Quotations.

On page 352 is this chestnut from Christopher Morley: "There are three ingredients in the good life: learning, earning and yearning."

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

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