Super Bowl tickets, luxury resort stay among perks Pa. lawmakers accepted in 2023

Lawmakers accepted trips bankrolled by campaign groups, organizations pushing alternatives to public education, and more.

Capitol building

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on July 26, 2023. (Amanda Berg for Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Top Pennsylvania state legislators accepted nearly $30,000 in travel expenses in 2023, often from groups that have interests before the state, newly filed ethics reports show.

That includes trips to political conferences and other events bankrolled by campaign groups, organizations pushing alternatives to public education, and more. Several other lawmakers went to Arizona on a trip funded by Kooth, a U.K.-based mental health provider that has a state contract worth millions. While there, two state senators attended the Super Bowl on the dime of a millionaire insurance executive.

Pennsylvania’s gift law is one of the loosest in the U.S. and places very few limits on what public officials can accept. They can accept gifts of any size, as long as they report those that meet a certain threshold on ethics filings.

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The law does bar lawmakers from taking gifts if doing so will influence their votes and positions. Under both chambers’ ethics rules, lawmakers are also barred from accepting cash gifts from a lobbyist or anyone else seeking a specific legislative outcome.

But good-government advocates have long bemoaned that there are few ways to enforce these no-pay-to-play rules, and they generally amount to self-policing. Other states also have much stricter limits on what lawmakers can accept.

“When you have a pay-to-play setup, when you can’t pay, you don’t get to play,” Michael Pollack, an activist who has pressured the state legislature to ban gifts, told Spotlight PA. “And that’s why so many Pennsylvanians feel used and unheard and hurt by policy violence.”

The primary oversight mechanism in the gift law is public reporting. Public officials must report any gift over $250 in value, or hospitality — including travel, meals, and lodging — over $650 on their annual ethics filings.

But there are ways around this requirement. A 2019 legislative report found that lobbyists regularly spread costs out among clients, which in turn can keep gifts to lawmakers below the reporting threshold.

This loophole is apparently often used. In 2018, legislators and state employees reported accepting $39,200 in gifts and hospitality from lobbyists, the report noted. During the same period, lobbyists and principals reported spending $1.5 million on that purpose.

Some work, some play in Arizona

In 2023, six lawmakers traveled to Arizona to attend a conference held by Kooth, which received a $3 million contract from the Department of Human Services to provide online mental health services to school districts.

Four of those lawmakers — state Rep. Ryan Bizzarro (D., Erie) and Sens. Jimmy Dillon (D., Philadelphia), Marty Flynn (D., Lackawanna), and Chris Gebhard (R., Lebanon) — reported travel expenses paid for by either Kooth or Kooth’s lobbyists, the DT Firm, totaling $8,500.

In a February 2023 press release, Kooth said the lawmakers went to Arizona to “highlight their work” on a panel.

In an email, a company spokesperson said that Pennsylvania was one of the first states in the country to fund online student mental health resources, and “legislators who were supportive of the grant funding and were seeing local success in their school districts joined the panel to provide an overview of what PA is doing for youth mental health.”

Both Bizzarro and Gebhard told Spotlight PA that mental health issues are top priorities for them as legislators.

“I didn’t really know why they wanted me to go,” Gebhard said. “I think it’s a topic we have to talk about a lot more and deliver services to the people who need it.”

State Reps. Mike Cabell and Aaron Kaufer, both Republicans from Luzerne County, also traveled to Arizona but did not report gifts related to the trip on their ethics filings.

Cabell did not respond to a request for comment, but Kooth said he “paid his own way to learn more.”

Kaufer said he paid Kooth back for his travel costs. He also attended the Super Bowl while in Arizona on his own dime.

“I was a sponsor of the gift ban,” Kaufer told Spotlight PA. “I don’t mind going on these trips, but I’d rather pay my own way.”

Dillon and Flynn also attended the Super Bowl while in Arizona, and reported receiving $2,200 from Excalibur Insurance Management Services on their annual ethics filings. The company is owned by Charles Volpe, a Lackawanna County businessman and frequent GOP political donor.

Dillon’s report said the expense was a Super Bowl ticket, while Flynn’s categorized it as “transportation, lodging, and hospitality.” However, he told Spotlight PA that the expense was a ticket.

Flynn said that he has known Volpe for 30 years and that Volpe is the uncle of “one of my best friends.”

Volpe is also a Philadelphia Eagles season ticket holder through his company, which allowed him to purchase two tickets to the 2023 championship game. Flynn said that Volpe wasn’t able to attend and gave him the tickets. Flynn gave the second ticket to Dillon.

Volpe told Spotlight PA that he was “a little old to be going to Super Bowls” and had no interest in seeing the Eagles play — “I’m a Raiders fan,” he said. Volpe offered the tickets to Flynn after remembering that the lawmaker was going to be in Arizona at the same time.

As for Dillon, Volpe said: “I don’t even know the other guy. That’s Marty’s friend.”

Volpe dismissed the idea that the gift was an attempt at influence.

“I’m a major donor to the SRCC and HRCC,” he said, referring to the legislative Republican campaign committees, “so I could give two licks less about some senators.”

State law does not require officials to report gifts from family members or friends “when the circumstances make it clear that the motivation for the action was a personal or family relationship.” By that standard, Flynn said he didn’t need to report the tickets because of his “pre-existing relationship” with Volpe.

“But I did anyway, just to make sure that there didn’t look like there was anything funny going on,” he said.

Flynn and Volpe, who also runs a nonprofit insurer of governmental bodies, said they never talk about policy. Excalibur is not registered to lobby, according to Department of State records, while Volpe’s nonprofit, the Housing and Redevelopment Insurance Exchange, is.

Travel perks

Spotlight PA examined 31 of the 253 state lawmakers’ ethics reports, focusing on those in leadership positions. While some reported no gifts or travel, others accepted thousands of dollars worth from advocacy groups with agendas to pitch.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) reported $4,600 in travel from four groups.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee — a national group that funnels millions of dollars from unions, corporate trade associations, and other groups into state-level races — spent $2,300 to send McClinton to its “Speaker’s Conference.”

McClinton also accepted trips to the annual meetings of The NewDEAL, “a selective national network of pro-growth progressive state and local elected officials”; the Pennsylvania Medical Society; and the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, a state interest group representing trial lawyers.

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Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) reported accepting a trip worth almost $3,000 from the State Government Affairs Council, an association of multi-state lobbyists, to their “Leaders Policy Conference.”

The event was held last November at the Ritz-Carlton in Amelia Island near Jacksonville, Florida. The 5-star hotel “stands as an exquisite testament to refined luxury,” according to its website. The conference agenda included panels on marijuana legalization, retail crime, and “civility in public discourse” as well as a “sunset cruise” and a Sunday afternoon football watch party.

State House Appropriations Committee Chair Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) reported accepting two trips worth $5,700. One was from the North Carolina-based Hunt Institute for a summit on early childhood education; the other was from the Justice Action Network, a national criminal justice reform group that asked him to be a guest speaker at a conference, according to his statement.

Groups supporting alternatives to public education were also active in flying lawmakers around the country.

The American Federation for Children provided $3,270 in meals and lodging to state House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and state Rep. Josh Kail (R., Washington), his caucus’ policy chair, to attend a December conference in San Diego.

The meeting was held to “exchange school choice strategies and solutions that can benefit families,” Cutler said in his disclosure.

State Sen. Ryan Aument (R., Lancaster), his caucus’ whip, accepted travel paid for by a think tank that supports school choice. He reported $2,550 from the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education to travel to a November summit in Atlanta.

In an email, Aument’s spokesperson said the conference was not solely focused on school choice. A foundation web page shows presentations on artificial intelligence, the impact of smartphone usage on children, and “the complex and troubling challenges facing today’s male students.”

State Rep. Dawn Keefer (R., York), chair of the arch-conservative Freedom Caucus, accepted a trip from another national group backing alternatives to public education, the Indianapolis-based EdChoice. It was the most expensive of four trips she reported.

Keefer also accepted trips from the American Legislative Exchange Council; Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian-aligned student activist group; and the Club for Growth, a fiscally conservative political group that counts Pennsylvania billionaire Jeff Yass among its top donors. In total, she accepted $8,000 for the four trips.

Not every gift lawmakers accepted in 2023 was policy-related.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia) also attended the 2023 Super Bowl, but his trip wasn’t related to Kooth or Volpe. Hughes is married to actress Sheryl Lee Ralph, who performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before kickoff. At the time, Hughes’ spokesperson said that Ralph brought Hughes with her and that the NFL paid for his lodging, transportation, and ticket.

Hughes reported the trip, paid for by the NFL, on his annual statement. He reported $1,000 in travel costs with the ticket as “value unknown.” He also reported accepting three tickets from the Philadelphia 76ers worth $810.

State Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) reported accepting $3,700 in “golf clubs/accessories” from two individuals: Gebhard, a fellow state senator, and Indiana County insurance executive Joe Reschini.

“Despite the gifts coming from two friends, I felt it was something that should be disclosed to best adhere to ethical conduct laws,” Pittman said in a statement.

Gebhard, who said he played college golf, said the clubs were a Christmas present for Pittman and “the least I could do to pay him back for the nine million questions I’ve asked him over the last three years.”

The clubs, he said, are “just me being a complete golf geek.”

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