Editorial | End gift-giving to state lawmakers

March 27, 2014 

The following editorial appeared in the Times Leader, of Wilkes-Barre, on Wednesday.

Fresh evidence that Pennsylvania residents should radically change their broken state government surfaced recently as, yet again, certain lawmakers seemingly strayed so far beyond the bounds of solid judgment and ethical behavior that it calls into question why taxpayers don’t toss the whole bunch.

This time, the issue wasn’t an elected official caving to special interests or giving a sweetheart deal, such as a casino license, to a questionable character. (Been there.)

It wasn’t an appellate court judge, state senator or representative misusing their staffers to illegally do campaign work. (Done that. A lot.)

No, this was allegedly some old-school, passing-money-under-the-table misconduct.

A sting operation snagged a handful of people, including four state lawmakers, accepting cash and money orders that they failed to disclose, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer, which says the dirty transactions were recorded by an undercover informant.

State Rep. Ronald Waters allegedly received a total of $8,250, and three other Democratic legislators supposedly accepted amounts between $1,500 and $5,000. In one instance, cash was wrapped in a napkin and exchanged outside a restaurant, according to tape summaries.

None of the implicated lawmakers reported the money on their annual financial-disclosure forms, a requirement under state ethics laws for any sums above $250 for most gifts. (The reporting threshold for gifts involving transportation and hospitality is higher, triggered by anything worth $650 or more.)

Attorney General Kathleen Kane dropped the investigation that started prior to her tenure, saying it was fundamentally flawed and couldn’t be successfully prosecuted.

While questions continue to swirl about Kane’s inaction, others rightfully are wondering this: Why, in 2014, are nonfamily members permitted to give Pennsylvania lawmakers any gifts of significant value?

State law currently places no limits on the size of a gift that a lawmaker can accept; he or she need only report it if it exceeds a certain dollar amount.

And, of course, an elected official can’t pocket gifts and promise action in return. That would be bribery (illegal), as opposed to simply greas-ing the palms to make a swell impression (apparently still perfectly acceptable in the eyes of some people).

State senators have begun drafting legislation to curb the inappropriate passing of gifts. Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, and Sen. Lloyd Smucker, of Lancaster County, reportedly are putting together a proposal that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting money, money orders, checks and gift cards from lobbyists or others who stand to gain in the legislative process.

“No good can come of a legislator accepting a cash gift,” Smucker told the Inquirer earlier this week. “It should be a given that we are not allowed to do it today.”

He’s right. But any ban should extend to other items (most hotel stays, travel, tickets, etc.) And it should apply to other government workers, such as the three former Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board officials who supposedly golfed, wined and dined, thanks to gifts they received from vendors that did business with the PLCB.

The State Ethics Commission recently ordered the trio to repay thousands of dollars in gifts they allegedly received yet failed to report.

The things passed to people in government posts always comes with strings attached.

For Pennsylvania’s public servants, the gift-exchange party should have been over long ago. The fact that it only now might be addressed reflects the low priority Harrisburg historically has given to self-policing its ranks.

A smaller General Assembly, with significantly fewer representatives, might be the gift state residents most desire in light of today’s warped system.

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