State should ban gifts to public officials
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 operation – 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 new roof 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.