Corruption goes well beyond one corner of Pennsylvania

Former State Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny) on her way to court before she was convicted of using taxpayer-funded staff for campaign work. Associated Press
Former State Sen. Jane Orie (R., Allegheny) on her way to court before she was convicted of using taxpayer-funded staff for campaign work. Associated Press
Posted: June 07, 2012

A century after the journalist Lincoln Steffens attached the embarrassing epithet "corrupt and contented" to the City of Brotherly Love, we have not only failed to clean up our act; we seem to have successfully exported our crooked style of governance to the rest of the commonwealth.

The recent sentencing of former State Sen. Jane Orie to 2½ to 10 years in prison is another sad addition to the record of one of the most criminally prosecuted legislatures in America. The fact that our government is sending more of its members to prison than most Mafia families should not be blithely disregarded as trivial. The state has an ethics problem.

Orie will be joining one of America's fastest-growing prison gangs — not the Aryan Brotherhood or the Mexican Mafia, but the General Assembly Rascals, a phalanx of formerly high-ranking Pennsylvania lawmakers who chose to violate their oaths of office to enrich themselves or their political parties. Once respected state leaders who hobnobbed at fancy restaurants and Washington galas, Vince Fumo, John Perzel, Bill DeWeese, and Mike Veon are now breaking bread and less sumptuous cuisine with other miscreants who didn't know how to control their antisocial behavior.

We seem to be a jurisdiction of overachievers in this regard, taking our place among the nation's leaders in official corruption. And Pennsylvania's judiciary may rival its legislature for chutzpah, most notably with the "Kids for Cash" scheme that sent undeserving children to private prisons for financial kickbacks. Some see it as the worst case of judicial abuse in the nation's history.

Granted, the Keystone State hasn't cornered the market on elected officials doing dubious or stupid things. As an investigation by the Center on Public Integrity noted, other states have had their own embarrassing moments in recent years:

In Georgia, almost 700 government employees accepted gifts from vendors doing business with the state in 2007 and 2008, in violation of state ethics laws.

In North Carolina, a lawmaker sponsored and voted for legislation to loosen regulations on billboard construction — even though he co-owned five billboards.

A West Virginia governor took a car from a local dealership for a test drive that lasted four years. Not surprisingly, the dealership won state contracts worth millions of dollars.

In Maine, a state senator failed to disclose a $98 million government contract that went to an organization where he served as executive director. A loophole in a state law allowed for the opportune oversight.

Stories of backroom deals that subvert the public will and plunder public resources; lawmakers who rise to office championing openness and democratic principles only to line their pockets once in power; and elected officials acting like corporate lobbyists are not new, but they seem to be proliferating. Some states are trying to tackle the problem more aggressively. Alabama granted subpoena power to its ethics commission, Florida barred all gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, and Connecticut set up public financing for campaigns. Other states are improving transparency with campaign-finance databases and online access to government records.

The Pennsylvania legislature's response to the state's corrupt shenanigans, by contrast, has been underwhelming. A bill sponsored by a cross-section of concerned Democrats and Republicans would have established a state Public Integrity Commission, but it died for lack of support. The proposal's chief proponent recently decided to leave the legislature.

But who can blame the naysayers given that so few voters are up in arms? With the exception of small but hearty groups like Democracy Rising and Congress Watch, the public doesn't seem to care much about integrity and ethics, and lawmakers have taken note.

Rigid ethics rules are uncomfortable and restrictive; few of us want someone looking over our shoulder all the time. But if long-serving lawmakers like Fumo and Veon had not dismantled the Pennsylvania Crime Commission in the early 1990s, they might have had a better chance of avoiding their subsequent careers as long-serving inmates.

With the legislature fumbling an opportunity to rectify its penchant for criminal behavior, voters can only hope one of the two candidates for state attorney general can be counted on to continue Tom Corbett's record of aggressively prosecuting those guilty of public corruption. Maybe Corbett's ascent from the attorney general's to the governor's office will provide the necessary incentive.

Early in the last century, Lincoln Steffens illuminated some of the worst abuses occurring in America's big cities, and Philadelphia came out looking particularly immoral and unethical. One wonders what Steffens would think of the commonwealth today.

Allen M. Hornblum is a writer and former member of the Pennsylvania Crime Commission.

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