With lawmakers caught on tape accepting cash, fresh calls for reform

State Sen. Daylin Leach , a Democrat, is drafting a plan.
State Sen. Daylin Leach , a Democrat, is drafting a plan.
Posted: March 26, 2014

HARRISBURG - Dismayed at reports that their colleagues in the House took cash from an undercover informant, Republican and Democratic state senators are proposing legislation to ban lawmakers from accepting cash gifts.

Reforms that closely mirror each other are being drafted by two Republicans - Lloyd Smucker of Lancaster County and Lisa Baker of Luzerne County - and a Democrat, Daylin Leach of Montgomery and Delaware Counties.

The GOP proposal would prohibit lawmakers from accepting monetary gifts, including cash, money orders, checks, and gift cards, from lobbyists or anyone else with a stake in the legislative process.

Sen. Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, the majority leader of the Republicans who control the Senate, strongly supports a complete prohibition on cash gifts, spokesman Erik Arneson said. A ban has broad support among GOP senators, he said.

Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for the Senate Democratic caucus, said the chamber's Democrats support the concept of a cash gift ban, but have yet to see the actual language in the proposals.

In an interview Monday, Smucker said the legislation was prompted in part by stories in The Inquirer about an aborted sting investigation by the Attorney General's Office that captured five Philadelphia Democrats, including four state legislators, accepting cash or money orders on tape.

Smucker said he was surprised that Pennsylvania allows lawmakers to accept cash gifts, as long as they report them on their annual financial-disclosure forms.

State ethics laws require disclosure of gifts worth $250 or more, and transportation and hospitality worth $650 or more.

"No good can come of a legislator accepting a cash gift," Smucker said. "It should be a given that we are not allowed to do it today."

Leach, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the May primary to run for the U.S. House, also said that he had been following news accounts of legislators taking "envelopes of cash" and found that "very troubling."

Leach predicted that some sort of a reform would take place. "I think there is such a public outcry that we're going to pass something," he said.

The proposals follow a furor that has broken out since The Inquirer reported that Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, a Democrat, had killed a sting investigation begun in 2010 by prosecutors working for then-Attorney General Tom Corbett, a Republican.

The undercover operation caught the four Democratic state representatives from Philadelphia on tape accepting cash and captured a former Philadelphia Traffic Court judge accepting a $2,052 bracelet.

Kane said the five could not be prosecuted. She criticized the investigation as poorly managed, possibly tainted by racial targeting, and fatally undermined by a deal prosecutors made with the informant in which they agreed to drop more than 2,000 fraud counts against him in exchange for his cooperation.

Frank G. Fina, the former state prosecutor who launched the sting, has said the investigation was conducted properly and could have been expanded into an even more ambitious probe.

According to official summaries of the tapes made by the informant, State Rep. Ronald G. Waters accepted the most money. He received a total of $8,250 in eight payments, the summaries say.

State Rep. Vanessa Brown accepted $5,000 in six installments, and State Rep. Louise Bishop accepted $1,500 in three transactions, according to the summaries, which detail each transfer of money.

The Inquirer previously reported that according to people familiar with the investigation, State Rep. Michelle Brownlee accepted $3,500.

The official tape summaries, however, say that she directly accepted only $2,000 in cash from the undercover agent - money he wrapped in a napkin and handed to her on June 15, 2011, outside a restaurant in Harrisburg.

The summaries say that the informant, lobbyist Tyron B. Ali, gave a middleman another $1,500 to pass on to Brownlee. But bank records examined by The Inquirer suggest that the intermediary never wrote her a check for that amount, as Ali had directed.

None of the lawmakers reported the money on their annual financial-disclosure forms, even though the sums were well above the reporting threshold of $250. None of the four returned calls seeking comment Monday.

Critics say the Pennsylvania law regulating gifts is among the weakest in the nation. It permits gifts of any size, as long as an elected official doesn't promise action in return.

Across the country, gift laws vary in toughness, said Natalie Wood, a program principal with the Center of Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

She said nine states have "zero-tolerance" laws, banning legislators from receiving anything of value from lobbyists.

An additional 31 states ban gifts over a certain monetary amount, which she says varies widely.

In the remaining states, including Pennsylvania, there is no limit on the size of gifts.

A complex aspect of the Pennsylvania law is that it imposes different reporting rules for gifts as opposed to hospitality, the term for hotel rooms and tickets to games or other entertainment.

In crafting the disclosure law, legislators gave themselves an even bigger threshold for hospitality items: $650 and over.

As he networked with lawmakers over a 19-month period, according to the people familiar with the investigation, Ali gave two Phillies tickets worth about $350 to Democratic State Rep. John T. Galloway of Bucks County.

Galloway later sent Ali a text message, saying, "Game was awesome :) quick question -) are you reporting it? if so it is over 250," according to the summaries.

Galloway did not return a message Monday. In a previous interview, Galloway said he had not taken tickets from Ali, but rather had bought a pair at $40 each and given them to relatives.

Since the tickets cost less than $650, Galloway would have been under no obligation to reveal them under the hospitality section of his financial-disclosure form.


cmccoy@phillynews.com

215-854-4821 @CraigRMcCoy


Staff writers Jennifer Lin and Mark Fazlollah contributed to this article.

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