Just say no

Posted: March 31, 2014

SO THE ka-boom! news this week from Republicans and Democrats in the House State Government Committee is that they'll introduce legislation that forbids public officials from accepting cash gifts from individuals - including from lobbyists and the principles they represent.

Color me stupid, but who knew that such a slimy practice isn't currently illegal in this state? And how depressing is it that lawmakers who've sworn an oath to pass laws only in the public's interest need to be reminded of that oath in the form of another law?

"The strengthening of ethics laws for all elected officials in Pennsylvania is long overdue," our battered Attorney General Kathleen Kane said in a statement on Wednesday. "Frankly, the notion that any amount of cash could legally be given as a 'gift' further erodes the public's trust in their government."

Sigh. If only we could prosecute them. But they'd probably have to be caught accepting gifts on tape or something.

I hate to bash lawmakers when they're down. So let's save a kick for America's big pharmaceutical and medical-manufacturing companies and the physicians they ply with gifts - like fancy dinners, trips and honorariums - to spur sales of whatever drug or device they're peddling.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that the wooing works wonders, as it "appeared to affect prescribing and professional behavior" among physicians.

Another study showed that doctors' comfort level in receiving gifts starts early, noting that "85 percent of medical students believe it is improper for politicians to accept a gift, whereas only 46 percent found it improper for themselves to accept a gift of similar value from a pharmaceutical company."

I guess it's only graft when other people tarnish their public oaths with private money.

For years, elected officials have called for more transparency in Big Pharma/Medicine's multibillion-dollar promotion and marketing industry, to no avail. They were shouted down by physicians themselves, who'd gotten used to the perks of being courted.

Starting in September, though, the dating game changes, big time. The new Physician Payment Sunshine Act requires all manufacturers of drugs and medical devices to report annually any payments or "transfers of value" (i.e., gifts and such) to physicians and teaching hospitals.

The info is to be made available to the public, as it should be. I mean, if your doctor prescribes you a new antibiotic, wouldn't you like to know whether the people who make the drug first paid for your doc and his family to surf in Maui for two weeks?

The federal penalties will be steep for willful noncompliance - up to $1 million annually - but there's an easy way for companies to avoid the headache of tracking every gift: Stop giving them. It'll remind docs that the Hippocratic Oath talks about protecting a patient's well-being, not a drug company's.

And speaking of oaths, what part of "protect and serve" did disgraced Philly ex-cop Jonathan Lazarde not understand back at the Police Academy?

As reported by my colleague Mensah Dean last week, Lazarde was a five-year police veteran assigned to Olney's 35th District last year when he arrested a man on a gun charge and then offered not to attend court proceedings to ensure an acquittal if the suspect paid him $5,000.

The suspect instead reported the extortion plot to Internal Affairs investigators, who set up a sting operation in April in which they caught Lazarde allegedly pocketing $5,000 in marked bills.

At his sentencing this week, Lazarde called his crime "an honest mistake."

What, he should've asked for a check instead?

I'd suggest that we need a new law (the way we need new laws for legislators and medical companies) to remind cops like Lazarde to follow the laws they've sworn to uphold, except we already have laws like that on the books. So I've been wondering what kind of reminder might've been helpful in his case.

Maybe a stenciled sign on his squad car would've prevented what he called "the worst decision I ever made." Something like, "No extortion permissible, no gratuities accepted."

It might've kept him honest.


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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