Rival to Corbett: Pay gift money back

Posted: March 06, 2013


That was the demand on Gov. Corbett on Tuesday from a would-be Democratic rival in the 2014 election - in response to the Daily News' front-page report that the governor and his wife took in more than $11,000 in gifts in 2010 and 2011 from lobbyists and execs with state-regulated businesses.

John Hanger, the state's top environmental official in the Rendell administration and a 2014 gubernatorial hopeful, said Corbett needs to admit that such gifts violated the official Governor's Code of Conduct - and then pay the money back, if feasible.

"The behavior of the governor is shocking," Hanger said in a conference call with reporters. He said that if Corbett doesn't express contrition and reimburse the gift-givers, "then we will have a real scandal on our hands."

Indeed, Democrats were certainly acting as if Corbett's actions already are a scandal - a sure sign that 2014 will be a long, hard-fought campaign.

In addition to Hanger's pronouncement, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party filed a complaint with the state Ethics Commission, asking for a probe of whether the gifts influenced policy decisions.

The Daily News reported that the gifts from lobbyists and businessmen included a Rhode Island yacht vacation, jet travel, tickets to Steelers playoff games and the NHL's Winter Classic, and a donation to help pay for Susan Corbett's inaugural gown.

In 1980, after a series of scandals in Harrisburg, then-Gov. Richard Thornburgh put in place a Governor's Code of Conduct that carries the force of law. It states that no official "may solicit or accept for the personal use of himself or another, a gift, gratuity, favor, entertainment, loan or other thing of monetary value" from anyone seeking business from, or regulated by, the commonwealth.

The question is how to interpret that. In the later years of his administration, then-Gov. Ed Rendell - while shunning gifts from lobbyists with an overt interest in state business - did take a couple of freebies such as a $1,000 ticket to the 2009 Super Bowl, courtesy of the Steelers.

Corbett's view of what's permissible is clearly more expansive, with gift-givers that included the lobbyist for Pittsburgh's largest medical center, an executive whose firm was under scrutiny by the state Department of Environmental Protection, and two law firms tied to Marcellus Shale interests.

Administration officials did not immediately respond to the Democratic complaints. Earlier, spokeswoman Kelli Roberts had told the Daily News that "[t]he governor's actions have always been, and will continue to be, transparent and free of any conflict of interest," noting that all gifts have been disclosed as required by law.

"It's Christmas every day in the Corbett administration," countered Hanger, who held a news conference - complete with a table of "gifts" - across the street from the governor's mansion near the Susquehanna River.

Hanger, who was a state utilities commissioner before being tapped by Rendell to head the Department of Environmental Protection, is eager to gain attention for his campaign as several better-known candidates - including U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord - weigh whether to enter the governor's race.

- Daily News columnist John Baer contributed to this article.

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch

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