Pa. needs gift ban for elected officials, watchdogs say

A trip to France and Turkish robes for Governor Corbett.

Four ski passes for Representative Pete Daley (D-Allegheny).

A yacht club membership for Representative Flo Fabrizio (D-Erie).

These are just three small examples of gifts legally given to — and accepted by — elected officials last year.

“In Pennsylvania, [gift giving] is wide open,” said activist Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital. “It's like the Mustang Ranch of gift giving.”

In Pennsylvania public officials can take anything, from anybody, as long as they disclose gifts over $250 in value or hospitality (food, drinks or travel) over $650 in value on a 'Statement of Financial Interest' form and file it with State Ethics Commission.

The Ethics Commission reviews 250,000 forms a year.

“We're fighting an uphill battle,” said Executive Director Rob Caruso.

Caruso says five years ago his office had 27 investigators and a budget of $2.2 million.

This year, his budget is $1.7 million and just 16 investigators.

“If we don't have the staff people to do our compliance enforcement and people to actually go out and investigate allegations, then it is gonna fall apart,” Caruso said. “Then you'll see, I think, a greater increase in the number of violations.”

It's hard to believe there could be increased incidents of wrong-doing by elected officials than the current era of corruption, in which sitting Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and two former Speakers of the House – Bill DeWeese and John Perzell – have been convicted of misusing public money for political gain.

But the staff at the Ethics Commission who oversea public officials are limited by a tight budgetary leash.

That bothers Senator Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin).

“It's just lip service for oversight if the watchdog agencies don't have the funding that they need,” he said.

Teplitz says it's unlikely a complete gift ban would pass this legislature but he supports a measure that would require elected officials to report any gifts valued over $50.

Currently, a public official can accept a $249 gift and $649 in food, drink and travel per year and not report it.

“I think there are some things that shouldn't happen whether you disclose them or not,” Teplitz said. “We need to draw those lines.”

Caruso said 18 states ban gifts. He thinks Pennsylvania should join them.

“With public perception right now, it creates a little more distrust in government. That's why we think the general assembly should take a look at that.”

Epstein is more blunt.

“You're not a better legislator by taking money, taking gifts or taking food from people with vested interest. Ban gifts and it would go a long way toward restoring confidence in government.”

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