Consol offered 2009 Super Bowl trip to key Pennsylvania regulator

John Hanger says that "going would have been the wrong thing to do."
John Hanger says that "going would have been the wrong thing to do."
Posted: February 20, 2011

HARRISBURG - The large coal and natural-gas company that treated Pennsylvania legislators to free Super Bowl trips this year made the same offer in 2009 to the state's top environmental regulator.

John Hanger, then the acting secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Ed Rendell, turned down the offer from Consol Energy Inc., the company that paid for several state legislators to see the Pittsburgh Steelers in the two recent Super Bowls.

"No, I didn't go," said Hanger, reached late last week for comment about Consol's offer.

Asked why, he said only: "Going would have been the wrong thing to do. . . . It would be better for everybody involved if the law was changed to prohibit offering these types of trips."

He would not give any more detail.

Consol officials declined to comment.

The offer to Hanger "just underlies the arrogance of the energy industry," said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg good-government advocate and founder of RockTheCapital.com. "That you would have the gall to approach the head of the DEP with Super Bowl tickets - that is absolutely over the top," Epstein said.

Though Hanger turned the company down, Consol paid for two Pennsylvania lawmakers to watch the Steelers beat the Arizona Cardinals that year in Tampa, Fla.: then-Rep. Timothy Solobay (D., Washington) and Rep. Paul Costa (D., Allegheny). Solobay is now a state senator.

And this month, when the Steelers again made it to the Super Bowl to face the Green Bay Packers, Consol flew Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) to the Dallas area for the game. The company also paid for his hotel and game ticket.

Scarnati has said that he will reimburse the company out of his own pocket for his accommodations and ticket, and out of his campaign fund for the plane ride - and that he had planned to do so from the start.

Consol, in a brief statement, said last week that it had had several guests at the Super Bowl this year, and that the expenses would be reported on its next lobbying-disclosure report. It would not identify its other guests.

Consol's 2009 offer for free Super Bowl trips came as Rendell was preparing to announce plans for a tax, for the first time, on the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, the vast rock formation that underlies three-quarters of the state.

Rendell's tax proposal fizzled that year - and the year after that. Pennsylvania remains the largest natural-gas-producing state without such a tax.

Hanger was head of an environmental group called PennFuture before his nomination to head the DEP in 2008. Consol and other energy companies greeted him with suspicion; a Consol spokesman was quoted as saying he hoped Hanger would "be able to shift gears" and work with industry when he arrived.

Under Hanger, who was confirmed as secretary in April 2009, the department wrote regulations to toughen drilling and wastewater-disposal standards. He also increased the number of inspectors and other oversight staff for natural-gas sites.

But he also drew some criticism from anti-drilling advocates who thought he should be tougher on enforcing water-quality rules.

Hanger has said he tried to strike a balance. He now runs his own environmental-consulting company and does work for a law firm that represents a range of energy interests.

Consol, one of the state's energy titans, had a huge stake in Hanger's decisions - and not just on Marcellus drilling. The DEP also regulates coal mining and has cited Consol - the nation's fifth-largest coal producer - for various violations in the past.

Consol operates three large underground mines in southwestern Pennsylvania that together produced nearly 25 million tons of coal in 2007. The mines employ huge blades to slice off seams of the coal, a technique called "longwall mining."

In 2008, another state agency sued Consol, saying the company's mining operations caused cracks in a dam that plugs a lake at Ryerson Station State Park, near the West Virginia border; the lake had to be drained.

Last year, the DEP issued a report finding that the company was liable. Consol had to submit a $20 million bond but is still fighting the decision.

The DEP also said it thought discharges from a Consol mine in West Virginia were to blame for a fish kill along miles of Dunkard Creek, which flows along the Pennsylvania border. The company halted the discharge in 2009, but was allowed to begin again a year ago with stricter limits.

Like other energy companies, Consol has considerable political muscle in Harrisburg. The company has contributed more than $385,000 to the state's politicians since 2001, according to an analysis by Common Cause Pennsylvania. And since January 2008, Consol has reported spending $209,550 on lobbying, including almost $67,000 in 2009.

Like rules on campaign contributions, Pennsylvania's gift rules are far less stringent than those in most other states, experts say.

The trend is for states to adopt a dollar limit on the gifts that legislators can accept in a year. In nine states, legislators can't take as much as a cup of coffee, let alone an all-expenses-paid trip to the Super Bowl.

In Pennsylvania, elected officials are free to accept anything they like, so long as they report all gifts worth more than $250 or travel worth more than a total of $650 each year.

"Even if gift giving isn't banned, gift accepting isn't mandatory," said Epstein. "Access is the currency of politics, and the more access, the more currency."

Just 11 states have no dollar limits on gifts, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In West Virginia, for example, legislators can accept items worth only a total of $25 each year, though meals and drinks are not included.

Pennsylvania's standard - just disclose what you take - is the "lowest common denominator" of state ethics rules, said Peggy Kerns, director of the ethics center at the state legislatures organization.

She said strict limits on gifts helped "put a clear line between the decision makers and the special interests that want to influence their vote."

"It's a public-perception thing," Kerns said. "The public doesn't get to go the Super Bowl and stuff like that."

The Pennsylvania legislature is considering several bills to increase transparency in government, including a measure to expand what people can learn about state procurement contracts.

A bill calling for a ban on gifts is not among them. "It's a no-brainer," said Epstein. "I don't know why it takes Pennsylvania so long to confront reality. I don't know why we have to be the last to do the right thing."


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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