Moving Pennsylvania capital cure for corruption? Experts are skeptical
HARRISBURG — Quashing government corruption could be as simple as taking Pennsylvania’s capital on a turnpike trip to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.
Two recent studies — one by Harvard University researcher Felipe Campante and one by the National Bureau of Economic Research — found corruption is more prevalent in “remote” state capitals with less intense media scrutiny than in big cities. The studies examined federal corruption convictions from 1976 to 2002.
Law enforcement officials are skeptical, given both cities’ white-collar rap sheets.
“We certainly couldn’t count on a capital in Philadelphia reducing corruption,” said Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed.
The City of Brotherly Love produced a rogues gallery of corrupt public officials, with convictions of former City Treasurer Corey Kemp, former Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, former Senate power broker Vincent Fumo and Fumo’s mentor, the late Buddy Cianfani, who preceded Fumo as senator from District 1.
Fumo left federal prison this month, having served about four years of a 61-month sentence for fraud, tax evasion and obstruction of justice for trying to cover up his crimes. He committed them in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, defrauding taxpayers, a nonprofit and a seaport museum. The tab for his fraud: $4.2 million.
“In my experience, corruption is essentially based on greed, and that happens regardless of where the capital is located,” said Freed, president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.
Since 2009, more than two dozen people with ties to the state’s General Assembly, including two former House speakers, were convicted of felonies in prosecutions by the state attorney general and local district attorneys. Only one case — Fumo’s — was tried by federal authorities.
In February, an Allegheny County jury found former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin guilty of using state staff for her campaigns. A judge sentenced her to three years of house arrest. That case was not part of the study.
“The study’s central thesis is that large capital cities, with a large market share, are less likely to be corrupt because they are policed by large media corporations,” said Eric Epstein, co-founder of reform group Rock the Capital. “Does anybody seriously believe that moving the capital from Harrisburg to Philadelphia would make Pennsylvania less corrupt?”
“That’s a simplistic reading of the results,” Campante said, noting that other factors contribute to corruption and his study didn’t exclude those.
Yet he found a “robust link” to corruption in isolated capitals, compared with capitals in urban areas with intense newspaper coverage and voter participation, he said.
When he lived in Boston, Duquesne University law professor Wes Oliver said, the Massachusetts Legislature had an overwhelming presence “because it was right in the middle of town.”
But despite the study’s presenting “an interesting idea,” he said, “… I think it is wrong.”
Most major newspapers keep bureaus in Harrisburg, Oliver noted. Corruption allegations typically stem from thorough, long-term investigations, and that still becomes big news for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia news media outlets, he said.
Campante said Albany, N.Y., and Springfield, Ill., stand out as fairly remote state capitals with higher-than-average corruption rates. He said Pennsylvania “sounds as if it fits the pattern.”
Four of Illinois’ last seven governors went to prison for corruption convictions. The New York Assembly was hit with scandals involving more than 30 members, according to The New York Times.
J. Wesley Leckrone, a Widener University political science professor, finds “mixed evidence that Pennsylvania fits cleanly into the overall thesis of the article.”
For example, Harrisburg is not among the least-concentrated capital populations with its metro area populace of almost 550,000, Leckrone said.
“State government corruption is most affected by a state’s political culture, which sets the boundaries of acceptable behavior for politicians,” Leckrone said.
Pennsylvania’s culture “is more tolerant of political corruption than other states,” he said. “This doesn’t mean that citizens are not upset by the actions of politicians. It just means that they have accepted it as part of the way our political system operates.”
Having a state capital between the state’s two main metropolitan areas does not enable corruption, Leckrone said, though it could be “a contributing factor” that helps feed the underlying political culture.
“The idea that media coverage of government activities prevents corruption seems a bit far-fetched to me,” Leckrone said.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or [email protected].