Pa. sting the talk of the Capitol

Posted: March 26, 2014

HARRISBURG - The General Assembly returned to work last week greeted with stunning headlines: Four of their fellow members had been caught on tape taking cash from a lobbyist.

In a week with a packed agenda of hearings and floor sessions, fund-raisers, and (coincidentally) ethics training, hallway chatter at the state Capitol turned to questions about the politics of the Attorney General's Office and the often-murky world of legislative gift-giving.

"It's difficult," said Drew Crompton, chief counsel for Senate President Joe Scarnati. "You always think, 'Dear God, here we go again.' "

The Inquirer reported last week that Attorney General Kathleen Kane had declined to prosecute a case predating her election in 2012 involving four state House lawmakers - Ronald G. Waters, Vanessa Brown, Michelle Brownlee, and Louise Bishop - who allegedly accepted cash gifts totaling $16,000 from a lobbyist.

For some Capitol veterans, the case brought back the angst of the multiple corruption investigations that began in 2007 involving the misuse of public resources and the use of government staff for campaigns that netted more than two dozen people, including nine lawmakers.

With the heightened emphasis on ethics in recent years after the wave of convictions, it shocked some lawmakers that anyone would even be tempted to take cash in envelopes, as was alleged.

"That's Ethics 101," said one House Republican, who did not want to be named, taking a break outside the majority caucus room Wednesday.

Inside, his colleagues were engaged in mandatory ethics training, something that was nonexistent when Jeff Coleman was in the legislature a decade ago.

"We had a half-hour of training," said Coleman, now a political consultant with Churchill Strategies. "They said, 'Here's the handout.' "

Now, both the House and the Senate have mandatory ethics training for members and staff every year, and an ethics officer was named to take confidential complaints in the House.

"If someone offers you cash, Rule No. 1: Assume they're wired," said Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery).

The first thing on Monday of last week, some lawmakers and their staffs were scouring appointment books to see if Tyron B. Ali, the Philadelphia lobbyist named in the report as having worn a wire and captured the lawmakers on tape, had ever visited or tried to make contact with them.

At lobbyists' offices overlooking the Capitol at Monday morning staff meetings, some were asking: "Who is this guy?"

"That's the first thing we did in our office," said Tony May, senior vice president for communications at the Triad Group. "I don't know anybody who goes around offering bags of money to people or giving out $2,000 bracelets."

Different reactions

During a busy week of fund-raisers for Democrats and Republicans - the standard-issue cocktail parties to "feed the beast" of ever-pricier campaigns - the sting was the subject of after-hours jokes by some lawmakers.

"One said to me: 'Where's my $1,000? It's my birthday,' " said one longtime lobbyist, referring to the allegation that Waters had taken a $1,000 birthday gift from Ali.

Elsewhere in the Capitol, the case drew swift reactions from good-government advocates who filed complaints with the state Ethics Commission and called for bans on all gifts from lobbyists.

Coleman, a Republican who represented Armstrong County during his two terms in the House, said Pennsylvania lobbying laws were still blurry and littered with loopholes.

"The lines are so paper-thin," Coleman said. "We still tolerate large sums of money given by corporate lobbyists. The difference is whether it's check or cash."

The gatekeepers for lawmakers say they feel they "walk on eggshells" with lobbyists every day.

"We're very skittish about it," said Crompton, whose boss, Scarnati, in 2011 came under scrutiny for accepting a trip to the Super Bowl paid for by an energy-industry group.

In Scarnati's case, the gift was legal, but nonetheless he paid it back when it was made public.

"People think legislators are the bad side of the equation," Crompton said. "But I've seen letters come in with notes, 'In appreciation of my appointment, here's $500.' "

Leach said there would be public financing of campaigns in a perfect world.

In the interim, Leach and two of his Senate colleagues this week introduced bills to eliminate all cash gifts.

"Banning cash gifts to legislators is long overdue," said Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster), sponsor of a gift-ban bill. "As recent events have unfortunately demonstrated, Pennsylvania continues to be behind the curve nationally in regard to strong ethics rules and laws. We must, and we can, do better."

717-783-2584 @inkyamy

comments powered by Disqus