New Castle News

March 28, 2013

Our Opinion: Tougher penalties needed to beef up state ethics

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Being a resident of Pennsylvania can take a lot out of you.

Especially when it comes to matters dealing with public ethics and the overall integrity of the state’s political system.

It seems as if the commonwealth is hammered with one scandal after another. The Bonusgate saga dragged on for years, followed quickly by the still-evolving matters of Jerry Sandusky and Penn State University. Then we had the charges involving Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who has — mercifully — agreed to resign.

But just recently came a new round of charges dealing with former top officials of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. It is a truly astonishing and deeply disappointing series of betrayals of the public trust.

And it’s long past time for Harrisburg to act to heal some of this damage. But how?

Well, one way is to toughen the rules regarding forfeiture of pensions of state officials and employees who cross the line.

Legislation toward that goal has been introduced in Harrisburg. But at this moment, it is languishing in limbo, tabled while it awaits an uncertain fate.

It’s not unusual for legislation to go through delays and analysis before any real action is taken. You want lawmakers to be deliberative in their decisions.

But in this instance, the main sponsor of the pension measure suggests to the New Castle News’ Harrisburg correspondent that his fellow lawmakers don’t want to deal with the details.

Rep. Fred Keller’s proposal would expand the number of criminal cases making state employees eligible for loss of pensions. They would include all felonies, thefts and violations of the Pennsylvania Public Official and Employee Ethics Act, which includes such matters as the inappropriate acceptance of gifts and engaging in conflicts of interest.

Tough? Absolutely. Too tough? Perhaps. If a crime has nothing to do with the activities within state government, complete forfeiture of a pension may be inappropriate. That’s something to hash out during hearings and floor debates.

But we can think of no more effective way to tell the people of Pennsylvania that government is serious about ethics — and no blunter way to send the same message to all commonwealth personnel — than to put pensions at risk.

State employees are eligible for considerable compensation courtesy of their pensions over the course of their retirements. Regardless of their stature, they should be loath to take any actions that would endanger them.

A tougher law on pension forefeiture will help in some small way to restore the public’s confidence in its government.