Where conflicts are ignored: The Pennsylvania Legislature |

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]).

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.