Where conflicts are ignored: The Pennsylvania Legislature
Unlike the real world, Pennsylvania legislators get a free pass to vote on matters involving their sons, brothers, wives, businesses and law firms.
They obtain opinions from the House or Senate parliamentarian on whether they are prohibited from voting on an upcoming issue because of their personal or professional relationship with someone involved.
They are typically told they must vote.
Take the case of Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, who presided over a hearing on expanding statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. The effort is opposed by the Catholic Church. Greenleaf did so despite the fact that his suburban Philadelphia law firm, Elliott Greenleaf, represented a monastic order in an abuse case. Greenleaf did not participate in that case.
The people in his Senate district would be deprived of his vote if he recused himself. That's the official line. But it creates the appearance of a conflict of interest. That's enough reason to step aside.
Granted, there was no vote at the hearing. But there likely will be if an amended version of the bill moves forward in committee and to the Senate floor, as is expected this week. Greenleaf's logic was that if voting is not a conflict then chairing a hearing isn't either.
Greenleaf presided over a hearing that advocates claim was stacked in favor of the status quo. Four witnesses testified that providing retroactive civil claims to victims sexually abused by priests is unconstitutional. One witness testified it is constitutional.
Advocates say they favor applying it to public and private institutions, not just the Catholic Church.
What would happen if a legislator didn't vote because of a declared conflict? You guessed it. Nothing.
Similar issues arose in February when the Senate held an unsuccessful vote to oust Kathleen Kane as attorney general because she's charged with crimes and no longer has a valid law license. Senators disclosed potential conflicts. They asked the Senate president, Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, whether they should vote.
Democrat Sen. Jay Costa's son works for Kane in the Internet predators section, Costa told Stack. Republican Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County is running for attorney general.
The senators were required to vote, Stack told them. Costa voted to not remove Kane; Rafferty voted to remove her.
Greenleaf has long had a reputation for integrity. I don't believe he was trying to get away with anything by not mentioning it until he was contacted by a reporter. He probably would have when it came up for a vote. I think he's just part of the bizarre legislative culture in which conflicts are ignored and they all turn their heads and insist on rules requiring they vote.
What would they say to a legislator who said, “My brother holds a state contract on the program we're voting on and he's seeking a renewal. May I vote on that?”
Speaking only for myself, I would rather my state senator not vote than vote with a conflict of interest.
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or [email protected]).