Despite ethics concerns, Shapiro will keep accepting tickets from a group that gets state money

Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro’s gift ban says he can’t take tickets from groups with “financial relations with the Commonwealth."

Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro is seen at a Phillies game.

Pa. Gov. Josh Shapiro is seen at a Phillies game. (Commonwealth Media Services)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Gov. Josh Shapiro plans to continue accepting perks like tickets to sporting events from a nonprofit that receives state money despite concerns he may be violating his own gift ban.

The nonprofit in question is Team Pennsylvania, a public-private partnership that says it works to improve the commonwealth’s “competitiveness and economic prosperity.” This year it paid for tickets and lodgings for Shapiro, a Democrat, to attend the Super Bowl in Arizona, and funded his tickets to a Philadelphia Phillies playoff game and a Penn State football game.

In the latter instances, the administration defended the trips as a chance to “attend the game with business leaders to discuss economic development and job creation” and to celebrate “the work [of] one of the Commonwealth’s most important universities,” respectively.

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The administration did not proactively disclose who paid for the tickets; Spotlight PA requested that information from a spokesperson.

One expert told Spotlight PA earlier this year that taking tickets from Team PA could conflict with Shapiro’s gift ban, which bars executive branch employees from accepting goods or services, like tickets, from any “person or entity” that “has financial relations with the Commonwealth.”

Team PA receives money from the commonwealth. Just this year, the nonprofit was awarded $1.8 million in taxpayer money from three new contracts, including $1.2 million to study hydrogen technology. The rest is to develop an economic development plan for the state.

The gift policy Shapiro signed doesn’t say who is supposed to monitor staffers and officials for potential violations, nor does the governor’s code of conduct, which predates his administration. The code of conduct says only that people covered who don’t comply “shall be subjected to disciplinary action including, but not limited to, reprimands, suspensions, and termination.”

>>READ MORE: Gov. Josh Shapiro rebuilt a bridge, weathered a messy budget, and walked fine partisan lines in 2023

Shapiro’s decision to tap Team PA for tickets isn’t unique. The group has existed since 1997, and has paid for expensive trips and outings for multiple Pennsylvania governors. The Shapiro administration has made clear that it doesn’t oppose that relationship.

“It’s a really important collaboration,” administration spokesperson Manuel Bonder said, noting Team PA’s long history. “[It’s] certainly one that we expect will continue so that the governor can partake in moments and opportunities to promote Pennsylvania at no cost to taxpayers.”

Important mission or ‘absurd’ perk?

Rich Hudic, who was executive director of Team PA for a decade after its founding in 2001, agreed that the sporting events were within the organization’s scope.

“It is important for the Governor to represent Pennsylvania as our cheerleader, champion and ambassador both nationally and internationally,” Hudic said in an email, “so it is entirely consistent with Team PA’s mission we created many years ago.”

Beyond the possible gift ban violation, critics argue the relationship is problematic.

Tim Potts, a former Democratic state House legislative staffer turned good government advocate, argued that Team PA gives its donors an inside track to accessing the Shapiro administration without any transparency or accountability. The nonprofit’s list of investors includes Deloitte, IBEW District 3, Penn State Health, and Shell.

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“Citizens have a right to know who is influencing public officials, how, and for what purpose,” Potts said in an email. “Without that information, people are rightly skeptical that public policy and taxpayer dollars are really serving the public interest.”

Michael Pollack, who heads the good government group March on Harrisburg and frequently lobbies for increased transparency in government, including a gift ban, thinks Shapiro’s decision to accept tickets from Team PA was “truly absurd.”

He added that Shapiro’s behavior isn’t particularly egregious for Harrisburg, which is notorious for its lax rules around gifts and campaign finance. But Pollack said he expected Shapiro to be more cautious, noting that it’s well known that the governor has higher political ambitions.

Pollack predicted these issues will likely come up again. Legislation that would restrict gifts is perennial in Harrisburg and often gets buried by lawmakers.

“He should prioritize issues that earn the trust of the people of Pennsylvania,” Pollack said.

‘Understand the appearance’

The administration’s use of Team PA for event tickets isn’t the only transparency-related practice that has raised eyebrows during Shapiro’s first year in office.

Shapiro had his gubernatorial transition team sign unusually strict nondisclosure agreements and declined to publicize the private donors who funded his inaugural festivities — a departure from at least two immediate predecessors. He also decided to keep his daily schedule secret and relaxed former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s (notoriously strict) gift ban.

Plus, the administration quietly settled a sexual harassment complaint against Mike Vereb, a top staffer and one of Shapiro’s oldest political allies. Spotlight PA learned of the settlement after Vereb’s abrupt resignation in September, and a public records request revealed that it had cost the commonwealth nearly $300,000 and included a confidentiality clause that barred both sides from discussing the allegations.

Asked about these decisions, from Shapiro’s private schedule to the settlement, Bonder said the issue was being “frankly, somewhat raised in bad faith.”

“We are responsive. We’re accessible,” he said. “He does events at a very high pace all across Pennsylvania and answers questions from any media that shows up.”

Ed Rendell, who served as Pennsylvania governor from 2003 to 2011 and has known Shapiro for decades, took a more nuanced view of transparency questions.

The Democrat also sometimes took advantage of the commonwealth’s lax gift laws during his tenure. But while he sees these as “inside baseball” issues that constituents don’t think about much, Rendell said he doesn’t dismiss them.

Optics on things like gifts are important, he noted, and Shapiro “has got to understand the appearance of it.”

“He’ll learn,” Rendell said.

Spotlight PA logoSpotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds the powerful to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

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