ABC27 Investigates: Are lawmakers keeping anti-corruption agencies weak?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – You work hard. You provide for your family, give back to the community, save what you can, and pay your taxes.

Pennsylvania’s State Ethics Commission Executive Director Rob Caruso says respect for that hard work is the reason government agencies are tasked with weeding out corruption. The Judicial Conduct Board investigates judges. The Ethics Commission investigates local and state leaders accused of using tax dollars for their own interests. Those state leaders determine funding for both agencies.

“It is sometimes a difficult situation to ask for a budget increase from the same people who at some point could be investigated,” Caruso said.

Crunching the Numbers

Caruso says he needs 27 employees for the commission to be fully-staffed. Right now, there are 19 investigating sometimes 500 complaints per year. They handle financial disclosure forms for all of Pennsylvania’s 2,562 municipalities and 253 state lawmakers.

In 2009, after state funding cuts across the board, the Ethics Commission’s budget was slashed from $2,195,000 to $1,980,000 – a $215,000 difference. Recovering hasn’t been easy. Eight years later, the budget has climbed back up to $2,433,000, but Caruso says that number still does not allow for a full staff.

He says the taxpayers are the ones losing out.

“Over the years, as our staff has shrunk, you pick and choose the things you can do,” Caruso said, “and I think you get into a dangerous situation when you’re deciding what complaints to investigate. Do I let small stuff go and just look at the big stuff?”

The Politics

The very dilemma that keeps Caruso up at night allows some state lawmakers to sleep just fine. The commission is able to open investigations into allegations they violated the Ethics Act, and a well-funded commission has greater abilities to conduct more thorough inquiries.

The big question is whether lawmakers will go for Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed 6.5 percent funding increase for the Ethics Commission this year, which would bring the budget to $2,591,000.

“It will enable us to go forward or continue our operations in the way we presently have them,” Caruso said. “If we’re held flat, we will go into a pretty decent-sized deficit where we may have to furlough someone…I’ve never had to furlough anyone and at this point in my career, I really don’t want to get into doing that.”

The Loopholes

Having the right resources is an issue that goes beyond cash flow.

“First would be closing off some of the loopholes in the [Ethics Act],” Caruso said when asked what his ideal resources would look like.

Caruso gave an example. If a school board member is married to a teacher in that same school district, the board member is allowed to vote to give all teachers across-the-board raises, even though that vote will use tax dollars to boost the board member’s family income.

Additionally, even if the Ethics Commission proves an elected leader or public employee misused your money, there will not be consequences if the commission cannot prove how much money was involved.

“I think that kind of defeats the purpose of the act when you have that in there,” Caruso said.

State lawmakers, who many argue stand to benefit from those loopholes, are the only ones who can close them.

“If the public’s not watching this, it goes on unchecked and it really weakens government,” Caruso said.

Judicial Conduct Board

The Judicial Conduct Board has 13 staff members. The board opened 804 complaints about judges in 2016, all while operating with .05 percent of the judicial branch’s budget, which in turn is .05 percent of Pennsylvania’s budget.

The board has asked for a $298,000 increase to its current budget of $2,182,000. The goal is to hire new staff.

Wolf is proposing no increase this year.

No one from the Judicial Conduct Board would go on camera.

‘They don’t want people rattling around’

“People want honest judges,” ethics attorney Bob Davis said. “Is that person sitting on that bench the kind of person that you or I or anyone else would wanna judge ’em? You can’t get a more important societal value than that.”

When it comes to the State Ethics Commission and the Judicial Conduct Board, Davis has a unique perspective. He has represented judges and public leaders accused of misconduct.

You might assume that means he wants less funding for those investigating agencies. Davis says the opposite is true.

“I want people that can do it promptly and efficiently,” Davis said, “and that means, in many circumstances, more people.”

Davis says slim resources hold up cases.

“My clients, who are of course wonderful people, are sitting there with all this anxiety,” Davis said, “and honestly, it ruins people’s lives.”

“Frankly, that’s a concern to me because my clients are feeling the pain,” Davis added, “but that’s also a concern for the public. They don’t want people rattling around that ought to be removed or disciplined or straightened out or counseled or whatever they’re going to do. They don’t want them rattling around with their problem not taken care of.”

Davis says state lawmakers who determine funding for the Judicial Conduct Board often have their own political interests in the judges who get investigated, but he doesn’t believe all are actively and purposefully skimping on funding.

“I don’t think they’re holding up funding because they don’t want these folks to be able to do their job properly,” Davis said. “I think it’s a matter of priorities.”

Both Davis and Caruso say the number one priority should be holding the powerful accountable.

“If we’re doing our job and we’re funded, I think the citizens of the commonwealth might be able to breathe a little easier knowing that somebody’s keeping an eye on them and that their public officials are doing the right thing,” Caruso said.

Taking Action

In 2011, the American Bar Association recommended the Judicial Conduct Board find additional sources of funding. One option would be to collect money from fees. Sources say nothing is actively in the works to follow that recommendation, but such an idea could be considered in the future. There would be several legal complexities to work through before this practice could be implemented.

The State Ethics Commission enforces the Lobbying Disclosure Law. Currently, it is not permitted to keep any portion of the fines it collects. However, there has been discussion about legislation that would allow the commission to do so. This is another step in the hands of state lawmakers, some of whom benefit from an under-funded commission.

Community activists say if you’d like to see change, the best thing you can do is call your state lawmaker. If you’re not sure who that is, you can click here and search by entering your address.

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