Accepting cash from lobbyists: Legal in Pa

    It seems clear that the four Pennsylvania lawmakers who apparently accepted thousands of dollars from a lobbyist as part of the strange sting operation shut down by State Attorney General Kathleen Kane won’t face prosecution.

    And that little fact reminds me of another way that Philadelphia, long regarded by many in the state as a filthy nest of political corruption, is in some respects ahead of the state in ethics and transparency.

    The truth is that it is perfectly legal for a state lawmaker to accept gifts, including cash in any amount, even from a lobbyist or business owner with interests in state business, as long as it’s not in return for official action and as long as the lawmaker reports the gift on his or her annual statement of financial interests (which these four didn’t).

    If those folks were Philadelphia city officials (as opposed to state representatives whose districts are in Philadelphia), those gifts would clearly violate the city ethics code, which prohibits officials from accepting gifts of substantial value from someone with an interest in city business.

    Case law has interpreted the city code to bar gifts of more than $200 in value, and the code is now being strengthened to ban cash gifts of any amount.

    The four state lawmakers identified by the Philadelphia Inquirer as having accepted cash in the sting are state Rep. Ronald Waters, who allegedly took $7,650; state Rep. Vanessa Brown, who allegedly took $4,000; state Rep. Michelle Brownlee, who allegedly accepted $3,500; and state Rep. Louise Williams Bishop, who allegedly took $1,500.

    Our calls to the lawmakers’ offices were referred to a spokesman for House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, who said in a statement that “the allegations reported in the [Inquirer] article are troubling. If it’s true that any legislators accepted gifts without reporting them, they should correct that reporting mistake.”

    I’ll also note that while Pennsylvania is still one of a handful of states with no limits on campaign contributions, Philadelphia has had limits since 2003, which were effective in the last mayor’s race. And the Philadelphia Board of Ethics has been aggressive in policing politicians’ conduct in the last several years.

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