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March 28, 2014

Lawmakers run up $2 million in undocumented expenses

HARRISBURG — Lawmakers racked up $2 million in undocumented expenses for hotel rooms and meals last year under loose rules that allow them to collect payments for expenses even when the Legislature isn’t in session, according to records obtained under a Right-to-Know request.

Some lawmakers collected set, per-diem payments to cover expenses for five days in weeks when the Legislature met just three. Some collected expenses for travel to meetings around the state throughout the year.

In fact, those who collected the most were typically active on committees that met when the Legislature was not in session.

State Rep. Mark Longietti, D-Mercer County, was one example. A vice chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee, Longietti submitted $28,039 in un-vouchered expense claims in 2013. The committee schedules hearings across the state to hear testimony on policy issues.

“I like to be very active. That’s how I do the job,” Longietti said. “My constituents want their voices heard. I’m at the table.”

Longietti was reached Wednesday in Erie, where he was attending a hearing on bullying.

He defended the use of un-vouchered per diem expenses as a practical solution to the challenges of tracking expenses for a job that has a lot of travel.

“I’m on the road 150 to 200 nights a year,” he said.

State Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence County, said that critics over-estimate the financial benefits of the per diem system.

“People think we are enriching ourselves,” he said. “I don’t see it.”

Gibbons called the use of set per diem rates that don’t require documentation for travel costs “a legitimate practice, governed by IRS rules.”

But other lawmakers say they should be expected to prove their spending. Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny County, introduced a bill this week that would require receipts from lawmakers seeking reimbursement for travel costs.

“There have been too many media reports questioning the integrity of the state’s un-vouchered, per-diem system of reimbursement and thereby questioning the integrity of the user of the system,” Vulakovich said in a prepared statement. ”It’s time we end this practice and make the system more accountable.”

Vulakovich is among the senators who already document their lodging and meal expenses.

Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“I seek only reimbursement for hotel expenses, so it is simply submitting a copy of my hotel bill,” Gordner said. “Private business reimbursement requires receipts.”

Of 203 state representatives, 150 filed un-vouchered expense claims last year, while 42 submitted documentation for their lodging and meal expenses, and 11 didn’t ask for any reimbursement for travel costs, according to the legislators’ records

Twenty-nine state senators submitted expense claims without receipts, while 20 senators submitted documentation.

One senator, Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon County didn’t submit any requests for reimbursement.

Last year the House was in session 81 days and the Senate, just 75 days.

During a typical three-day legislative week, many lawmakers arrive in Harrisburg on Sunday night and bill the taxpayers the cost of their lodging so they can begin work first thing Monday morning. Some lawmakers also submit expenses for Thursday, if they schedule a meeting before leaving the Capitol. The rules allow lawmakers to submit reimbursement for meals even if they don’t remain in Harrisburg overnight. The meal reimbursement was up to $52 in 2013.

Under the per-diem rules, lawmakers may claim up to $170 a night for expenses, even though lodging is available in Harrisburg for less.

For example, the Crowne Plaza, just blocks from the Capitol, offers rooms for $97 a night, according to expense forms filed by some lawmakers who provided documentation. The City House, a nearby bed and breakfast that is popular with legislative leaders, charges $127.56 a night, records show.

Eric Epstein, coordinator of the activist group Rock the Capital, said the public doesn’t understand why lawmakers may claim expenses without documentation, especially when most businesses require receipts.

“Most people want legislators to live like they do,” Epstein said. “Nobody gets reimbursed if they don’t get documentation.”

Pennsylvania lawmakers, who receive a base pay of $84,012 per year, have the second-highest pay in the nation and the third-highest reimbursement rate for undocumented meal and lodging expenses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Lawmakers in Ohio and New Jersey are not allowed to claim per-diem expenses, according to the group. New York lawmakers can claim up to $165 a day. In Maryland, lawmakers can claim up to $101 a day for lodging and $42 a day for meals.

Who got what ...

State representatives and senators can cllaim expenses for meals and lodging.

According to the state House and Senate, the lawmakers representing Lawrence County received the following amounts for 2013:

•Rep. Michele Brooks, R — $10,665

•Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D — $20,978

•Sen. Bob Robbins, R — $11,059

•Rep. Chris Sainato, D — $27,436

•Sen. Elder Vogel, R — $5,045. He submits receipts rather than unvouchered claims.


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