Amid new corruption, questions about Pa. campaign finance laws

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – It would almost be humorous if it weren’t true.

Pennsylvania powerbroker John Estey admitted stealing money from a fictitious FBI company. He was supposed to use the cash to bribe lawmakers.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the FBI’s fake firm, UCC, did make numerous contributions through Estey and other lobbying firms and even succeeded in getting a bill passed in the state Senate.

According to court documents, Estey told FBI investigators that he needed the contributions to move their legislation.

Some might conclude money is the grease that makes the legislative machine run.

“They’re right,” Sen. Arthur Haywood (D-Philadelphia) said. “There’s a significant amount of influence that those who have money have in the legislature, not only here but in cities around the state.”

Haywood is a freshman senator from Philly and has concluded, in his short time in the General Assembly, that moneyed special interests get special treatment.

“I do think that democracy is threatened. It’s clear to me that democracy is threatened,” he said.

Giving campaign contributions is perfectly legal.

Wanting specific legislation is perfectly legal.

But getting a lawmaker to write specific legislation in return for a campaign contribution is illegal.

So, Pennsylvanians are to believe that all of the people and companies that funnel money to elected officials want nothing in return?

“There’s concern about how people perceive what’s going on here,” admits Senator Jay Costa (D-Allegheny), “but I can say to you unequivocally, Dennis, that that’s not the way we operate here. We do not introduce legislation or pass legislation for the benefit of people who make campaign contributions.”

Perhaps not, but Costa, the Senate’s minority leader, also admits that Pennsylvania’s campaign finance laws are among the weakest in the nation. He’s introduced, for several years, reforms to help the public know who is giving how much to whom.

He wants more transparency and more reporting and more.

“Also limits,” to contributions Costa said, “because when you have unlimited amounts of money making its way into Pennsylvania, in some ways it could influence access to members and that’s what’s taken place.”

Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) chairs the State Government Committee and is generally considered a good-government proponent. Reforms to campaign finance would go through his committee. He would like a full public vetting before any changes are made.

Folmer said people without integrity will find ways to circumvent the system and believes bad intentions trump good laws every time. He says because some have ethical lapses, that shouldn’t penalize honest donors. He gave an example of a mythical constituent who might want to contribute a million dollars with no strings attached.

“Maybe they like Mike Folmer and like what Mike Folmer stands for. Now, people could look at me very suspiciously. Why’d this guy give Mike Folmer a million dollars? It might be as simple as because he could. I don’t want to trample on someone’s first amendment rights, either.”

Free speech is also a first amendment right, but longtime lobbyist John Milliron says fewer at the Capitol are exercising it as freely since the Estey sting went public a few weeks ago.

“To summarize, it’s nervousness,” Milliron said. “And it’s a shame. But they don’t know who wore a wire for how long and if you still are.”

He said legitimate lobbyists also laughed at reports that Estey was using campaign contributions to work the legislature. He said he never does that and it’s generally not an accepted practice.

“For most of us who are really good in this business, when we read that, that’s hilarious. If that’s how you get work done, you’re not very good at what you do,” he laughed.


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