New Castle News


April 3, 2014

Our Opinion: Ban of cash gifts to politicians belatedly imposed

NEW CASTLE — Sometimes it takes massive embarrassment to get people to do the right thing.

Proving that is the Pennsylvania Legislature, where this week House leaders ordered a ban on most cash gifts for members.

Hearing this news you might wonder: Why were state politicians ever allowed to accept money? The answer to that question is quite simple: This is Pennsylvania.

And, according to the clean government organization Common Cause, Pennsylvania ranks as the worst state in the country when it comes to having standards related to the accepting of gifts by lawmakers. Basically up to now, there were no standards.

Lawmakers were allowed to accept anything, so long as they reported gifts of more than $250 from a single source or $650 in travel and lodging from one source.

But a scandal involving four lawmakers in the Philadelphia area seems to have had a sobering impact on the folks in Harrisburg, who ought to be immune to repeated blows to their reputations by now. And instead of cleaning house and standing up for ethical conduct, they persist in making reforms such as this, in dribs and drabs.

According to news reports, the scandal at the heart of this latest stab at reform involved four Democratic lawmakers who accepted cash payments from a lobbyist.

However, it turned out that lobbyist was acting as an informant for prosecutors and was wearing a wire. No charges have been filed, because Attorney General Kathleen Kane says the probe, established before she took office, was legally flawed.

So rather than the arrests of more lawmakers, Pennsylvanians must be content to see House leaders meekly amend the rules. Rest assured, however, that nonmonetary gifts can still be pocketed — assuming the political pockets are big enough.

Meanwhile, Senate officials indicate a new reform measure that would ban cash gifts is to be introduced in that chamber. Again, it’s a modest change, designed to paper over the unpleasantness at hand.

Apparently more extensive reforms will have to wait for future scandals.

Why doesn’t Harrisburg simply ban gifts and tell lawmakers they will have to rely on incomes rather than handouts? Why should Pennsylvanians have to contend with elected representatives who are open to accepting cash and other assorted prizes?

Of course, the powers that be in Harrisburg assure us these gifts in no way influence legislation or anything else lawmakers do. These gifts are simply expressions of kindness forced upon good-natured politicians.

We think otherwise. And we think it is long past time for Pennsylvanians to hold their representatives accountable for these ongoing disgraces.

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