Oh, what a gift it must be to serve the city or state

Posted: April 07, 2014

Friends, time for another installment of Your State and City Government at Work.

First, Harrisburg found religion! The legislature located its conscience!

Sort of.

In the wake of the attorney general's aborted sting operation, where four Philadelphia Democratic state representatives allegedly took cash gifts from a lobbyist but were never charged, House leaders moved to ban lawmakers from accepting cash from lobbyists and other parties working with state government.

Let us pause to reflect. It is 2014 and I am sorry to report that taking gifts and cash-stuffed envelopes from interested parties - an accepted practice in organized crime but not so much anywhere else - is entirely legal for lawmakers as long as it is reported and (cough, cough) doesn't influence voting or legislation.

Pennsylvania, unremarkable in so many ways, boasts among the nation's most lax or generous gift laws, depending on whom you're talking to. Lawmakers never moved to do much about this before, but this, by sheer coincidence, is an election year.

The House is now proposing that its members, all 203 of them, and their gazillion employees cannot accept gifts unless from a spouse, relative, or friend.

In what may be my favorite line of the year, House leaders did draw one distinction: "Registered lobbyists, they said, may not be considered friends."

But everyone is so backslappingly friendly in Harrisburg. Especially generous lobbyists and their deep-pocketed clients.

Back in Philadelphia, at the city's beloved Licenses and Inspections, last week brought us the indictment of former Deputy Commissioner Dominic Verdi, who seems aptly named. How green was Verdi's tally? The former official is charged with extorting nearly $1 million from bar and restaurant owners.

An apparent expert in taking licenses and exceptions at taverns, Verdi was allegedly willing to overlook failed inspections, gambling, an illegal "gentleman's" club in the Catholic War Veterans Northeast, even an owner implicated in beating a patron to death, all as long as barkeeps bought brew from Chappy's Beer, Butts and Bets, a name that I cannot mention enough.

You may be shocked to learn that Verdi held an ownership stake in Chappy's Beer, Butts, and Bets. Also, that among the fine joints listed in the federal indictment is the Fireside Tavern, connected to former Traffic Court Judge Michael Sullivan - the Learned Hand of vehicular justice and among the many disrobed indicted in the court's ticket-fixing scandal, notable for its gifts of porn and shellfish.

Fluent in the Philadelphia patois of double negatives, Sullivan once instructed a construction company owner to "Don't say nothing to nobody out there." Fireside's distinction was as a one-stop South Philly drinking establishment where patrons could order a PBR and pay parking citations in a box behind the bar. Now, that's service.

Let's return to Harrisburg, courtesy of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. In the grand state tradition of pay-to-play, the august commission took your tolls and paid way, way, way, way, way too much for a computer software system. How much? Nearly five times - or $45 million - too much. Yet, the system, we learned last week in a new report, "was poorly designed and poorly implemented." Thank goodness our highways and bridges are in such sterling shape that those millions aren't needed elsewhere.

On a happier note, the House Ethics Committee convened last week, which occurs at least once every century. Its eight members are deciding what to do about those four legislators who allegedly took lobbyist lucre (and subsequently suffered profound amnesia) after Attorney General Kathleen Kane washed her hands of the matter as if they had been soaked in gasoline.

The committee last took disciplinary action almost four decades ago, so long ago that it makes you want to down a few cold ones, possibly from Chappy's Beer, Butts, and Bets. Before that, the ethicists hadn't taken action since 1899, when William McKinley was in the White House.

That must be because Harrisburg is such an ethical, magical place, where every day's a gift and every lobbyist a potential friend.


kheller@phillynews.com

215-854-2586 @kheller

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