When people complain about journalists, they’re usually thinking of TV personalities, like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Bill O’Reilly, Katie Couric, or Brian Williams.
I think of journalists as people like John Baer, Pete DeCoursey, Angela Couloumbis, Brad Bumsted, and John Micek. You may not recognize the names, but they’re far more representative of professional journalists in America than the blow-dried crowd on the tube. The above named scribes are all beat reporters and columnists who prowl the halls of Pennsylvania’s state capitol.
I mention this because Wednesday a career politician pleaded guilty to corruption charges in Harrisburg, and most Pennsylvanians won’t recognize his name either. He’s John Perzel, a former 32-year Republican legislator from Philadelphia who for years was one of the most powerful men in the state.
Perzel’s crimes aren’t the garden variety bribes and shakedowns we normally associate with political corruption. What he and others in a wide-ranging state investigation were charged with is far more insidious and harmful: using tax dollars to run political campaigns.
These people used your money and mine to preserve their own political bases, so they could then control congressional re-districting, state education budgets, tax rates and dozens of other things that really affect our lives.
A few weeks back on Fresh Air, Terry Gross interviewed journalist John Nichols about the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pushes model legislation mostly in Republican-controlled state legislatures. Nichols made that point that while many in the media focus on the president and Congress, far-reaching decisions are made all the time in state capitols, which get far less attention.
The investigation that nailed John Perzel and a couple dozen other people of both parties began in January, 2007 with a newspaper story by Charlie Thompson and Jan Murphy of the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
They’d gotten a tip that a bunch of Democratic legislative aides had received hefty cash bonuses, and there were suspicions that the extra scratch was for working on political campaigns. Legislative leaders stonewalled requests for information about the bonuses, and citizen activist Gene Stilp sued to find out what was going on.
Other reporters got on the story, information came tumbling out, and the result was a firestorm of outrage that spread to both parties and ignited the criminal investigation that has ended some high and mighty careers in the capitol.
So on the day when John Perzel pleads guilty, let’s raise a glass to reporters who grind it out every day like Thompson and Murphy, and to civic gadflies like Stilp and Tim Potts who speak truth to power and make noise doing it.
And we should make it our business to follow what goes on in state capitols – read the stories, talk about what’s going on to friends, and run the rascals out of office that aren’t doing the people’s business.