State should ban gifts to pub­lic of­fi­cials

The Review - - Opinion -

Call it the gift that keeps on giv­ing.

Penn­syl­va­nia is one of the very few states that does not limit how much our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives can ac­cept in terms of “gifts” from their friends and busi­ness bud­dies.

All they have to do is list the gifts on their fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure forms.

As you might ex­pect, this of­ten leads to some ques­tion­able – even crim­i­nal – cir­cum­stances. It’s amaz­ing how many times all these lit­tle trib­utes from lob­by­ists and oth­ers – in the form of free meals, drinks, trips, tick­ets to sports events, even home re­pairs – fail to show up on the nec­es­sary pa­per­work.

Of course, the com­mon be­lief is that these gifts are not of­fered with­out folks ex­pect­ing some­thing in re­turn. It’s called ac­cess. It puts them in the game that plays out in Har­ris­burg ev­ery day – with the peo­ple’s money. Your money.

This week a group of res­i­dents de­cided to make their own state­ment, an ef­fort to get the ear of their rep­re­sen­ta­tives, and rally for a move­ment to ban gifts for state law­mak­ers. They held two days of ral­lies in Har­ris­burg.

They want a vote on House Bill 39, which would place a ban on all gifts to state law­mak­ers.

Sev­eral groups of pro­test­ers were ar­rested at the Capi­tol last week when they set up shop in the of­fice of state Rep. Darryl Met­calfe, R-But­ler. Why was the Repub­li­can But­ler tar­geted? Be­cause he chairs the House State Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee.

That’s where House Bill 39 has been sit­ting with­out ac­tion since Jan­uary.

The pro­test­ers, part of a March on Har­ris­burg, were ar­rested when they re­fused to leave Met­calfe’s of­fice. They were charged with de­fi­ant tres­pass­ing, a mis­de­meanor.

We do not con­done their ac­tions in re­fus­ing to leave Met­calfe’s of­fice. But we fully sup­port their push for a ban on gifts to our elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives. Why? Do we need to re­view what amounts to Penn­syl­va­nia’s very own Hall of Shame, the parade of elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives who have run afoul of the law all be­cause they did not re­port the gifts and fa­vors show­ered upon them.

It was just such a sting op- er­a­tion – in which sev­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Philadel­phia were cap­tured on tape ea­gerly ac­cept­ing gifts, stuff­ing cash, bling and other good­ies in their pock­ets – that led to the down­fall of for­mer At­tor­ney General Kath­leen Kane.

And it is beyond ironic that one of her big­gest neme­ses, Philadel­phia District At­tor­ney Seth Wil­liams, who first chided her de­ci­sion to kill the probe, then took up the cause him­self and got sev­eral con­vic­tions in the probe, now faces trial on crim­i­nal charges that he did ex­actly the same thing. Wil­liams ac­knowl­edged that he did not list a slew of fa­vors and gifts – in­clud­ing a newroof for his home.

State law­mak­ers can ac­cept gifts from var­i­ous sources – in­clud­ing lob­by­ists, busi­ness in­ter­ests and oth­ers – so long as they re­port them in the dis­clo­sure forms they filed each year with the state Ethics Com­mis­sion. That in­cludes any gift val­ued at $250, or meals, travel, tick­ets and other niceties that check in at more than a $650 value.

Those gifts buy ac­cess, the kind of ac­cess that reg­u­lar cit­i­zens of­ten crave but can­not af­ford. And it tilts the play­ing field on im­por­tant leg­is­la­tion in fa­vor of those with the loud­est voice – and of­ten the fat­test wal­let.

Any num­ber of at­tempts have been made in the past to erad­i­cate this easy ac­cess. They’ve all failed. That’s be­cause the peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing the kind of change that is so badly needed are the same peo­ple who are ben­e­fit­ting from the way things are now.

Wel­come to your Penn­syl­va­nia Leg­is­la­ture.

If you think leg­is­la­tors might be a lit­tle reluc­tant to change the way things are, you would be on the money. Lit­er­ally. None of the pre­vi­ous pro­pos­als has be­come law.

We urge Rep. Met­calfe to al­low a vote on House Bill 39.

Un­less, of course, he can pro­vide a rea­son­able an­swer as to why it should re­main bot­tled up in his com­mit­tee.

Then maybe he can also an­swer the ques­tion that al­ways comes up: “Why is this money, or these gifts, or these tick­ets, be­ing given?”

We sup­port a ban on gifts to pub­lic of­fi­cials. It’s time for Penn­syl­va­nia to end the gift that keeps on giv­ing.

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