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The sorry state of Pa.’s corrupt culture

These are days of shame in Pennsylvania.

In just the past couple of weeks, a sitting state Supreme Court justice has been indicted, a state senator has resigned in the wake of her conviction on corruption charges, a former Senate president pro tempore has struck a plea deal and a former House speaker has been sent to prison, released and then returned to prison.

Penn’s Woods is in the throes of the worst outbreak of corruption since Milton Shapp was governor in the ’70s. Former high-ranking officials of both political parties, as well as elected officials in the Legislature and a state Supreme Court justice, have brought shame upon themselves and upon the government they were entrusted to serve.

The case of former House Speaker Bill DeWeese is particularly egregious. Convicted and sentenced, he reported to prison but was released just days later pending appeal. As DeWeese walked out of the prison gates and later feasted at one of Harrisburg’s finest restaurants, those of less lofty status were left to languish behind bars while awaiting trial.

DeWeese returned to prison four days later after Dauphin County Judge Todd Hoover ruled that he should remain jailed while he pursues appeals.

And yet DeWeese was nominated for a new term by voters in his Greene/Fayette County district in April’s primary.

Adding further to the cesspool of corruption is the fact that those charged and convicted were not low-level staffers or even back-benchers in their respective chambers. They were state leaders.

Yet despite their convictions — and the rejection of dozens of legislators tossed from office by voters — precious little reform has been enacted by those who remain. There have been a few changes, such as ending voting in the middle of the night and not passing legislation in lame-duck sessions.

But the reforms passed to date have been neither significant nor structural.

The culture of corruption that pervades state government stems from the fact that the General Assembly has become a career rather than a public service for too many of its members. And once elected, many lawmakers place a higher premium on getting re-elected than on addressing the many significant needs of the commonwealth.

That is why school districts across Pennsylvania are standing on the beach, waiting to be swamped by a tsunami of pension costs, why our public education system is in disarray, and why our roads and bridges are crumbling.

We’re often told by today’s officeholders that a few bad apples have not spoiled the whole barrel and that there are good and honest people serving in state government. This is certainly true. But apparently there are not enough good and honest people — or not enough of them are willing to step forward — to make the changes necessary to put an end to the commonwealth’s corrupt culture.

The philosopher Edmund Burke once said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” So true. By standing by and doing nothing, lawmakers add to the shame that shrouds Penn’s Woods like a summer fog.

Lowman Henry is chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.


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