As a Philadelphia grand jury continues to investigate a sting operation that caught at least five public officials on tape accepting money or gifts from an undercover informant, Pennsylvania lawmakers and advocates are gearing up for another debate over ethics in Harrisburg.
Gov.-elect Tom Wolf has said he’ll hold his transition team and administration to a no-gift pledge. The state House and Senate have passed rules against accepting cash gifts, though bills to make the rules legally binding have stalled.
Pennsylvania is among 10 states without any limits on the gifts lawmakers can accept from people with business before the Legislature or the commonwealth – at most, the Ethics Law requires lawmakers to disclose gifts that meet certain dollar-value thresholds.
“Merely requiring the disclosure of gifts received above a certain value is no longer regarded by the public as an effective guard against corruption,” wrote Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, in a co-sponsorship memo accompanying his proposed gift ban.
Some continue to stress the complexity of crafting a gift prohibition.
“One of the most important things with a gift ban is the implementation,” said Drew Crompton, chief of staff and chief counsel to Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “You do have to make sure you set up something that is not a gotcha.”
“I think that’s a fair statement,” said Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause Pennsylvania. “There are some reasonable exceptions … but you have to tailor them very closely.”
Smucker’s proposal exempts low-priced gifts from the ban, as long as they’re not from lobbyists. Lawmakers could also accept things from spouses or family, depending on the context of the gift. There would also be a variety of exceptions for meals at different kinds of events.
Kauffman said ethics reforms tend to divide lawmakers according into unusual camps, pitting newer lawmakers against those who have been around several years.
“They like getting the free meals and the free ski tickets and the free theater passes, in some cases, the free trips to the Super Bowl,” said Kauffman. “We are literally talking about a culture change in Pennsylvania government. A culture change is never easy.”