Editorial: More, better scrutiny

Posted: July 26, 2010

If you think legislators in Harrisburg will learn from the current corruption scandal, recall how they reacted to the indictment of Rep. Bill DeWeese (D., Greene).

Hours after criminal charges were announced against DeWeese last December, the longtime Democratic leader walked into the ornate House chamber at the state Capitol. His colleagues gave him a standing ovation.

Harrisburg has a habit of ignoring a problem after the crisis has passed. Several officials have been convicted of defrauding taxpayers in the "Bonusgate" prosecution, and more charges are expected. But reformers worry with good reason that the impact will last only as long as the final guilty verdict.

That's why some earnest legislators in both parties are launching an effort to create a permanent Public Integrity Commission. This independent state agency would have the power to investigate corruption at all levels of government, akin to the defunct Pennsylvania Crime Commission.

It would consist of seven part-time commissioners (chosen with input from the legislature, governor, and community advisers) and a full-time investigative staff. The agency would have subpoena power and the ability to grant immunity. It would refer findings to other law enforcement agencies for possible criminal charges.

The annual cost would be about $5 million, although that expense would include the budget of the current state ethics commission, which would be merged into this new office.

Rep. Curt Schroder (R., Chester) said the new agency would serve as a needed watchdog on the legislature, the executive branch, the judiciary, and local governments. Otherwise, he said, government officials will "get tired" of paying attention to ethics.

Schroder and his allies are right. Remember the pay-raise scandal of 2005? Legislative leaders later pledged to clean up their act, and then-Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) formed a special panel to devise new ethics rules. The effort produced minor changes in the legislature in 2007 but quickly fizzled.

They learned no lessons. That same year, Attorney General Tom Corbett launched the probe into allegations that legislators and staffers were diverting millions of tax dollars illegally for bonuses and other campaign operations.

Corbett's wide-ranging prosecution raises the natural question: Why not keep relying on the Attorney General's Office to crack down on government corruption? Why spend more of the public's money to create a new and potentially redundant agency?

Because the job, unfortunately, is big and perennial. Despite the attorney general's efforts, corruption still flourishes in Pennsylvania. Even the Bonusgate scandal was not uncovered by Corbett's investigators, but by newspaper reporters.

The Luzerne County "kids for cash" juvenile-detention scandal might have come to light sooner if there had been another watchdog to investigate corruption in the judiciary, said Rep. John Yudichak (D., Luzerne).

And the state's fledgling gaming industry undoubtedly will provide more opportunities for seasoned criminal investigators.

The sponsors of this legislation know that passage of the measure will be a tough slog. But voters should make this proposal an issue in the fall election.

If candidates for the legislature oppose a Public Integrity Commission, they should offer improved ideas for keeping a better eye on themselves.

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