Pa. Senate committee approves ban on cash gifts

Posted: April 09, 2014

HARRISBURG A Senate committee on Monday unanimously approved a bill to ban cash gifts to lawmakers, the latest reform measure to emerge since the disclosure that four Philadelphia legislators were caught on tape taking money from a lobbyist.

"This is a very important first step, a fundamental principal that I think should be in law," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Lisa Baker (R., Luzerne).

The bill, which could be voted on by the full Senate as early as Wednesday, would institute an "absolute ban on legislators accepting cash gifts from lobbyists, principals, consultants, and others who seek to influence the legislative process."

The only exception would be a gift from a parent, spouse, child or other close relative when "the circumstances make it clear that the motivation for the gift is a personal or family relationship."

The bill excludes properly reported campaign contributions, commercial loans made during the ordinary course of business, gifts offered to the general public, and awards or prizes given out at a contest open to the public.

A similar proposal has been introduced in the state House.The Senate's state government committee action comes weeks after revelations that the Philadelphia lawmakers, all Democrats, were caught on tape accepting cash totaling $16,000 from a lobbyist who had been secretly cooperating with state prosecutors. (The lobbyist also gave a Tiffany bracelet to a city Traffic Court judge.)

The sting operation predated the election of Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, who declined to file charges upon taking office last year.

 Kane has said the sting, in which operative Tyron Ali went undercover during three years, was poorly conceived and badly run. Backers of the operation have called it a by-the-book probe.

Monday was the court deadline for Kane and a lawyer for Ali to reply to requests by news organizations to have Ali's judicial records made public. Fraud charges against him were dropped last year in reward for his undercover work, but the case's records are sealed.

Kane has said she favors unsealing the records. Her office declined comment Monday.

During a discussion in the Senate committee meeting, several lawmakers referred to a string of corruption cases involving cash gifts across the state.

Baker said there have been 30 cases in northeastern Pennsylvania alone where elected officials have been charged, convicted of or pleaded guilty to taking cash gifts. Their only crime, she said, was that they did not report it.

Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Phila.) said he has been approached by constituents about the issue since The Inquirer first reported about the aborted sting last month.

"This [vote] sends a message that all of us are concerned, Republican and Democrat," he said.

Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) said his constituents were telling him they "don't want to wait anymore."

"People are demanding this," he said.

Sen. Donald White (R., Armstrong) chastised fellow lawmakers for rushing to respond to the Philadelphia case while sitting on other reform bills.

"It looks reactive to me," he said, mentioning a gift disclosure bill that has sat in committee since last year.

Committee Chairman Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R., Lancaster) said he was scheduling a hearing on a noncash gift ban on April 28.

The House approved internal rules banning cash gifts this month. A similar rule for the 50 members of the state Senate may be considered by the full chamber as early as Tuesday.

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Inquirer staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.

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