Lack of funding for State Ethics Commission invites corruption, experts worry
Behind the 1960s-era frosted glass doors of the Pennsylvania State Ethics Commission, several offices where dogged investigators once spent their days sniffing out governmental corruption are empty.
Abandoned cubicles are graveyards for boxes of old documents and unused office furniture.
For Rob Caruso, the commission’s executive director, it’s a grim reminder of all that is lost at the agency with the gargantuan mission of enforcing ethics rules for public officials, from executive branch employees and state lawmakers to members of school boards and borough councils.
Caruso’s staff stands at 17, down 30 percent from the 24 who once worked there.
The commission’s funding topped 2009 levels for the first time this year at just more than $2 million.
But this year’s $222,000 increase went to the bare essentials: upgrading outdated computers and software and hiring one investigator, the first hire in six years, Caruso said. The commission has six investigators and a director of investigations to handle complaints from around the state.
With the legislature’s June 30 deadline for passing a 2015-16 budget looming, Caruso doesn’t know what’s in the offing for his agency.
But he knows that with its funding and staffing levels, the commission can’t fully investigate all of the 400 to 500 sworn complaints filed each year.
His investigators’ work runs the gamut from the largest state agencies to the smallest local boards.
It was his group’s exhaustive, multi-year Liquor Control Board probe that fined five top former state officials in the past 16 months for accepting lavish gifts from vendors, ranging from trips and sporting event tickets to expensive liquor and visits to strip clubs.
On the same day the last of the five LCB officials was cited, the commission ordered Baldwin-Whitehall School Board member Martin Schmotzer to repay the $4,569 he earned during 10 days on the job in a district position he voted to establish.
Every complaint is reviewed, but a full investigation might not be opened if there’s no clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing or if the wrongful personal gain is minimal, Caruso said.
“If we think a complaint might be a loser, we might not open it, particularly if it’s a local government issue or in an area we might not get to for six months,” said Caruso, 62, who joined the agency more than three decades ago as an investigator.
One expert said Pennsylvania’s lack of funding for its watchdog office invites corruption.
“If you don’t have the resources, it sends a message out there to people that maybe you can get away with it,” said Michael Sullivan, president of the Athens, Ga.-based Council on Governmental Ethics and director of Massachusetts’ Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Sullivan said it’s not uncommon for oversight agencies to be underfunded and understaffed.
“There’s never a surplus of money in an agency like an ethics or campaign finance agency,” Sullivan said.
Given Pennsylvania’s history of political corruption, the lack of support makes no sense, according to one longtime political analyst.
“In a state with arguably a significant amount of public corruption, that (lack of funding) is really hard to explain and I think that probably explains … why they have a tough time being effective,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist with Franklin & Marshall College. “They don’t have the resources.”
Activist Eric Epstein, who heads the reform group Rock the Capital, said the commission has limitations that are frustrating to citizens who want public officials to be held accountable.
“The Ethics Commission is a valuable tool. We just have to make sure their knives are sharpened and that they have enough knives in the drawer,” Epstein said. “The underfunding … is premeditated. Essentially, the legislature wants to be left to its own devices; it’s not going to fund an outside agency to investigate its shenanigans.”
Caruso agrees his staff is “stretched pretty thin” handling complaints, processing state-mandated financial disclosure forms for public officials and political candidates, enforcing the state’s lobbying disclosure rules and issuing opinions to those who ask questions to avoid violating ethics laws.
With his trademark calm and understated manner, Caruso declines to talk in detail about cases under review.
The commission releases no information about complaints unless it rules, such as the orders against former LCB officials and Schmotzer.
But Caruso talks passionately about the commissioners and staff, their efforts to “make do” with the available money and what they might accomplish with a little more state support.
To save money, the six commissioners — appointed by the governor and House and Senate leaders from both parties — meet more by phone than in person to save the $250 per diems, he said.
Unused office phones are cannibalized by staff for parts to repair broken ones.
And despite the sometimes-steamy temperatures in his corner office in the Finance Building just steps from the state Capitol, Caruso said he goes without a window-unit air conditioner that would cost about $1,000 — and a chunk of his view — to purchase and install.
Out of sight, out of mind?
The Ethics Commission isn’t afforded an annual public budget hearing, which is typically an agency’s chance to tout its successes and seek money from lawmakers. Historians with the General Assembly and longtime legislative staffers said they can’t recall a time when the commission had such a hearing and can’t explain why.
And perhaps that’s why some key officials are unaware of the commission’s plight.
When told about the commission’s inability to investigate all complaints, Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, said: “That’s news to me. I was not aware they had any vacancies.”
Caruso put his concerns in a lengthy letter to legislators last year. He said commissioners have ramped up meetings with lawmakers to make their case.
Gov. Tom Wolf proposed an increase of about $63,000 for the next budget year, but final funding will be part of a compromise reached between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled legislature.
Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said he has met with commissioners and understands their needs.
“We hear from a lot of groups, obviously, and they all have very good stories,” Markosek said. “I don’t think I’ve ever talked to a group that didn’t have a worthwhile story and worthwhile need, but the dollars are finite.”
Kari Andren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2856 or [email protected].