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Northeast PA Legislators Rake in Transportation, Hospitality and Other Gifts

Better oversight, enforcement of public officials is needed, analysts say.

Pennsylvania legislators in 2010 reported more than $150,000 in gifts, paid travel and hospitality, including a trip to Texas.

Legislators are required to submit statements of financial interest to the Pennsylvania Ethics Commission every year, detailing their direct and indirect sources of income, any gifts the legislator received in the past year and any transportation, lodging or hospitality the legislator did not pay for.

The reports also include information on the legislator’s creditors, businesses and real estate interests.

State Rep. Michael Carroll, D-Luzerne, received a chair worth $694 from Boy Scouts in the Lehigh Valley when he received their Citizen of the Year Award. A newspaper article published at the time said Carroll won the Minsi Trails Council's "Citizen of the Year" award for "securing funding to repair a dam on their camp grounds. Without the improvement the camp would have been sold," the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader reported.

“It was an actual chair,” said Carroll. “When I went to the banquet, unbeknownst to me, the Citizen of the Year gets a chair. The actual gift was the chair.”

State Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, received $812 in hospitality from the Pennsylvania National Guard Association for hotel accommodations and conference registration in Austin, Texas. The senator paid for her flight to Austin while the PNGA covered the cost of her hotel and conference fees so Baker could accept the Patrick Henry Award.

According to the PNGA website, the award is presented to “local officials and civic leaders who, in a position of great responsibility, distinguish themselves with outstanding and exceptional service to the armed forces of the United States, National Guard or the National Guard Association of the United States.”

State Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh, received $3,700 from health insurance company Capital Blue Cross as a donation for payment of supplies and other “sundry expenses” for a legislative community fair that takes place in July.

“We have a community fair in Allentown,” said Browne. “Capital Blue Cross provides us some financial support for the event. Since they provide that assistance to me, I have to report that.”

Browne reported the “sundries” as being tents, refreshments, cups, tables and similar items. The fair attracts about 1,000 attendees.

According to information from the National Conference of State Legislatures, Pennsylvania has one of the weakest standards for gift reporting.

Eleven states have banned legislators from accepting any gifts, while other states set a monetary threshold over which gifts must be reported. In Pennsylvania, gifts of $250 and above must be reported, while transportation and hospitality of $650 or more must be reported. 

Tim Potts, co-founder and president of Democracy Rising PA, a nonprofit organization working for integrity in state government, said Pennsylvania should ban public officials from accepting any gifts because there is no way to protect against multiple smaller gifts under the threshold. 

“It undermines public confidence when public officials take enormous amounts of money and free gifts,” said Potts. “The people who give these gifts are not stupid. They expect something in return for their generosity and they get it at the taxpayers’ expense.” 

Potts said if legislators “have any regard” for voter confidence in government, a ban would be passed on acceptance of gifts to do away with the current "honor system" when it comes to reporting. 

Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College, argued the problem with gift acceptance is weak enforcement by the General Assembly, particularly in the wake of the Bonus-gate scandal in which several state lawmakers have faced corruption charges over illegal bonus payments to staffers who did campaign work.

“We’ve got all these lawmakers who come under indictment, we have all these questions raised about campaign finance relative to public corruption, and not a single chamber can bring them to task,” said Madonna. “(The rules) might as well be nonexistent.” 

Madonna argued for independent review and enforcement of the rules and said gift bans and better ethics enforcement would help restore public confidence in government.

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