Fruits of the sting: Candidates for Pa. governor call for tougher ethics laws

Katie McGinty: Gift ban should have no exemptions.
Katie McGinty: Gift ban should have no exemptions.
Posted: March 28, 2014

Polls show the economy, not ethics, is dominating the campaign for governor, but the tale of an aborted sting that taped elected officials accepting cash has candidates pushing to tighten Pennsylvania's lax ethics laws.

The four Democrats running to take on Gov. Corbett said Wednesday that they would go further than the current proposals in the legislature to ban only gifts of cash.

"To me, it's like taking a garden hose to a five-alarm fire," said Katie McGinty, former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, in an interview.

She wrote a letter Wednesday to the leaders of both parties in the state House and Senate, urging them to enact a ban on gifts to elected officials and staff in state government.

In Pennsylvania, it is legal for officials to accept cash and gifts, as long as they disclose them annually. The state is also one of the few in the nation that allows unlimited campaign donations.

York businessman Tom Wolf, state Treasurer Rob McCord, and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz are all backing gift bans.

The issue surfaced in the campaign after The Inquirer reported March 16 that state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, had declined to prosecute at least five Philadelphia elected officials - four of them state legislators - captured on tape accepting cash or gifts from a lobbyist during a three-year undercover sting.

Kane said the investigation was poorly handled, possibly tainted by racial profiling, and based on a confidential informant who had more than 2,000 counts of defrauding a state program for children and the elderly dismissed in exchange for his cooperation.

Wolf, who polls show is the front-runner in the May 20 Democratic primary field, criticized Kane's decision, saying that he found it inconceivable that elected officials taking cash could escape prosecution.

"My concern is that the primary task of all of us running for or serving in office is to restore trust in our public sector," the businessman said in an interview Wednesday. "We are stewards of the democratic tradition."

Mark Nevins, a spokesman for McCord's campaign, said McCord, too, supported a ban on gifts, and particularly cash gifts.

"Candidates and elected officials should not be accepting cash or money orders," Nevins said. McCord also believes the state "should be talking about money in terms of [limiting] campaign contributions," he said.

The governor's race has featured striking examples of Pennsylvania's lack of limits on campaign giving - such as the $500,000 McCord's campaign received from Al Lord, the former head of Sallie Mae, and a $1 million donation Wolf's mostly self-funded campaign received from a businessman.

Mark Bergman, communications director for Schwartz, said the congresswoman supported an outright ban on officeholders accepting any gifts, not just cash. In the past she has supported limiting individual and political action committee contributions to state legislative candidates, as well as tougher financial disclosure rules, he said. She also backed a congressional bill to ban gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers.

In the coming days, Schwartz plans to release more detailed information on her positions in terms of ethics and campaign finance, her aide said.

Corbett's campaign agreed with a ban on cash gifts.

"The governor supports full transparency and believes, especially in light of recent allegations, that now more than ever is the time for a full ban on cash gifts," said Billy Pitman, a spokesman for the Corbett's reelection campaign.

A former attorney general, Corbett was elected in 2010 in part on the strength of corruption convictions his office won against state legislators and their aides in the so-called Bonusgate and Computergate investigations. At the same time, he has received some criticism for vacation trips and other gifts he has accepted since becoming governor.

Conservative activist Bob Guzzardi, who is challenging Corbett in the GOP primary, said he thought a ban on gifts to elected officials and even government employees would be a good idea.

"I'm not sure why anybody's getting anything," said Guzzardi, an Ardmore businessman. "It's not necessary or appropriate. There shouldn't be gifts to high-level or even low-level bureaucrats."

Wolf, for his part, introduced a set of proposed government-ethics policies in January, before the issue was on the political radar.

He promised that if he is elected, he would institute a complete gift ban for his staff and appointees - which he called the "just say no thanks" rule - and to sign an executive order banning no-bid state contracts to private law firms. Hiring of outside law firms would be based on competitive bids, only when the general counsel certifies a need to reach beyond the administration's stable of attorneys.

The Corbett administration has spent at least $6.4 million on outside counsel since 2012, according to state records.

Wolf also would introduce legislation barring state employees and elected officials from accepting gifts worth more than $25, and tightening reporting requirements. Recipients would have to submit a report within 30 days, listing the name, address, and employer of the donor, as well as an annual summary, as currently required.

He said Wednesday that he would support a complete ban, calling his under-$25 proposal "a conversation-starter" with lawmakers.

As for Kane's handling of the investigation, Nevins said McCord was hesitant to judge without knowing all the information.

"If these legislators accepted gifts with the intent of enriching themselves, with the intent of not reporting it, that is corrupt and they should be held accountable," the McCord aide said. "But decisions about whether a case should be prosecuted should be left to the prosecutors."

Through Bergman, Schwartz again declined to offer an opinion of Kane's handling of the sting investigation.

"She's not a lawyer, and she doesn't want to be in the position of second-guessing prosecutors," Bergman said. "But what this does show is that there's a culture in Harrisburg that needs to change."

McGinty said a gift ban should have no exceptions - "if there's a footnote or an asterisk, that becomes the loophole that eats the regulation."

The only one in the Democratic field who is a lawyer, McGinty said she was never a prosecutor and is not qualified to judge how a criminal case would play with a jury. It's "unproductive" to second-guess Kane, she said.

During her career in public service, as an aide on Capitol Hill, a White House environmental adviser, and a state regulator, McGinty said she had never experienced someone trying to buy her off with a gift.

"I'm intense," she said. "I'd have people of all viewpoints in and out of my office for 14 hours a day. My instinct was never to use my precious lunch or dinner time to hang with a lobbyist."

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

comments powered by Disqus