Calls to reform gift policy for public officials often unanswered in Pa.
HARRISBURG — Expensive jewelry. Free vacations. Wads of cash.
Revelations of extravagant gifts to public officials often lead to a rush by lawmakers to restrict or ban the kinds of presents that raise the appearance of buying influence, an attorney for a national legislative group says.
Not in Pennsylvania.
After a March 2014 revelation that four Philadelphia legislators and a traffic court judge took payoffs from an undercover agent, calls for reform went unanswered by most of the Legislature. When Gov. Tom Wolf banned gifts to executive-branch employees, the Legislature decided not to apply the same standard to itself.
Now a man who prosecuted the officials in the March 2014 sting finds himself under scrutiny for more than $160,000 in previously undisclosed gifts that came to light only after he filed an amended financial disclosure statement this month. Those gifts to Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams included home repair projects valued at $45,000, including a roof replacement; trips to Key West; a vacation at a Virginia estate; boxing lessons; a portrait of himself; gift cards; and cash.
His attorney, Samuel Stretton, said he was under strict orders not to discuss Williams’ case with the media. The Associated Press and the Philadelphia Inquirer have reported there’s a federal investigation of Williams’ finances and campaign spending. His amended reports cover 2010-15. At least two defense attorneys who dealt with the DA’s office were gift givers, records show.
Ethan Williams, an attorney for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said when a state has a scandal, “You have the momentum to carry the legislation through to the end.” That happened in Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and Florida, reformers say.
“We get a lot of lip service (from leaders) saying it has been a priority for the two chambers,” said Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-Harrisburg, a sponsor of the gift ban bill.
“I kind of shook my head” upon learning of Seth Williams’ late-reported gifts, said Wes Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University. “It didn’t seem to be outside the norm of what we see from Pennsylvania politicians. At the end of the day, people may be outraged, but I’m not sure it gets people to the ballot box.”
Wolf wants Pennsylvania to join states that ban or virtually ban gifts.
“Gov. Wolf is calling for a gift ban that applies across all of government and builds on his administration’s executive order to ban gifts,” said his spokesman, Jeffrey Sheridan. “It is clear that more action is needed to make a ban permanent and to apply it broadly.”
“Gift restrictions are very important to dealing with corruption,” said Craig Holman, lobbyist for Public Citizen in Washington, D.C.
Ethan Williams said it is difficult to be precise about which states have a total ban, known as a “no cup of coffee” law because there are typically numerous exceptions.
State records show lawmakers took junkets to London, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Israel, while some accepted sports tickets.
Rep. Dwight Evans, a Democrat, accepted tickets to a Beyonce concert in Philadelphia. He says he gave the tickets to constituents. Fred Shabel, a Comcast Spectacor executive, provided the six tickets — which were worth $750 — in 2013.
“The key is, I report everything,” Evans said. “I do what the law says. No one is above the law.”
Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, attended a multi-national business conference in Haiti last year. He was a speaker, and Carib News paid for the senator’s $700 lodging, a spokesman said. PECO Energy provided three Army-Navy game tickets worth $375 in 2013.
Tickets to sporting events and concerts at Pittsburgh’s main venues — Heinz Field, PNC Park and Consol Energy Center — don’t count as gifts for some public officials, according to a 2008 legal opinion from a lawyer for the Sports & Exhibition Authority, which owns the facilities. The authority gets the tickets as part of its lease agreement and gives them to board members who can use them to promote the region, give them away or observe how the facility is being run, making the tickets part of their official duties, the lawyer reasoned.
SEA Chairman and state Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, attaches the letter to his Statement of Financial Interest each year as an explanation for why he doesn’t list which tickets he received, he said. The SEA provides the list of which board members received tickets if someone submits a Right-to-Know Law request.
“I’m disclosing I get tickets. I’m just saying there’s no (personal) value to them if I’m using them to promote the SEA or the city. That’s their purpose,” Fontana said.
Fontana said he gives away most of the tickets allocated to him. The tickets include seats in the stands, which Fontana said he has never used, as well as use of the authority’s suites, which he said he uses one to three times a year to woo investors from out of state or votes from out-of-town legislators.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, traveled to London to speak at a meeting of the European Life Settlement Association. He was in and out in 24 hours, said spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher. The value was $6,555, Corman reported.
In 2011, Corman received $3,366 worth of Steelers’ tickets from the Rooney family, which owns the team.
Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, reported $2,500 paid by the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Jewish Federations for a trip to Israel last year as part of a “state legislators’ mission trip.” Frankel said the trip “was relevant to state government.”
The trip “was substantive, not a junket,” Frankel said.