Political watchdog battles for change in Harrisburg

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HARRISBURG -- State officials used to regard political gadfly Gene Stilp as a pain in the neck, but a harmless sort of pain, someone who didn't really hurt them.

He would do silly things, such as urging Gov. Ed Rendell not to eat cholesterol-laden food like cheese steaks and hamburgers. On Feb. 2, 2004, he handed out bumper stickers saying: "Ed, please don't eat the groundhog."

He once quipped that because of Mr. Rendell's penchant for eating and gaining weight, Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll was "only a cheese steak away" from becoming governor.

Until July 7, 2005, it was easy to laugh him off. But ever since that infamous early morning pay raise vote, many legislators, politicians and other Capitol officials have stopped being amused at his antics, which included towing a 20-foot-high inflatable pink pig to rallies around the state to protest the pay raises.

And last week, Mr. Stilp raised his watchdog status to a new height, as he brought public attention to the more than $3 million in taxpayer-funded "meritorious bonus payments" that House and Senate leaders had quietly doled out to hundreds of staffers in 2005-06.

He filed a lawsuit, asking Commonwealth Court to determine if any of the bonus payments went for political campaign work, which would be illegal, rather than as a reward for long hours of legislative work, which would be permissible. Mr. Stilp also wrote to all 253 legislators seeking an "immediate halt" to the bonus handout.

Senate Republicans have ended the practice, but its most outspoken defender, House Democratic leader Bill DeWeese, has called for a moratorium on bonuses in his caucus until the new House Rules Committee discusses them.

Mr. Stilp contends that far more taxpayer-funded bonuses have been issued than would be warranted for just legislative work, especially in the election year of 2006, and wants Attorney General Tom Corbett to investigate.

House Democrats gave more than $2 million in bonuses for 2005-06, with most paid out in 2006 and some people getting more than $20,000. House Republicans gave out $900,000, with two-thirds paid in 2005. The highest Senate GOP bonus was $41,500, with several others in the $30,000 range.

Critics sometimes privately complain that Mr. Stilp wants to be a one-man show rather than a team player. He did have trouble cooperating with other citizens groups in 2005 over what legal strategy to use in blocking the pay raises.

"My impression is that he doesn't always play well with others," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg public relations consultant.

But he gives Mr. Stilp a high score in "getting media attention," adding: "He has more gimmicks up his sleeve than anybody I know. Putting a pink pig on the Capitol steps gets a lot of attention the first time you do it, but the 10th time, maybe not so much."

Eric Epstein of the group Rock the Capital has known Mr. Stilp since 1979, when they protested the Three Mile Island nuclear accident together. He calls Mr. Stilp "the premier political prop artist in Pennsylvania. He once took a toaster around the state, when PECO [a Philadelphia electric company] wanted a rate increase, saying, 'Don't let PECO burn you'."

But Mr. Stilp is a serious, thoughtful person, despite his occasional pink pigs and toasters, Mr. Epstein said.

"He is talented and bright and uses art and humor to get his points across," he said. "He doesn't file lawsuits willy-nilly. He is trying to draw attention to serious issues."

Mr. Stilp is a longtime critic of Mrs. Knoll, questioning her ability to take over as governor should that become necessary. He even ran against her last year for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. She crushed him.

A Knoll spokesman said she wouldn't criticize him.

"She says that this is a democracy and he is free to voice his opinion," said Sean Pendrak. "Quite frankly she thinks some of the things he comes up with are funny."

Most legislators would rather not talk about Mr. Stilp on the theory that getting into a fight with a porcupine does no good. House Democratic and Republican leaders won't talk now because the bonuses are the subject of litigation.

Rep. Mark Mustio, R-Moon, said he has never met Mr. Stilp but likes the "openness and accountability" in state government that he is pushing for.

"This whole openness is refreshing," Mr. Mustio said. "The Legislature should be about accountability."

Mr. Stilp was certainly not a one-man show in the fight to repeal the pay raises. Besides a dozen fellow activists, the battle was kept alive by talk radio stations around the state, a host of Internet bloggers, editorial and op-ed writers plus people who wrote letters to newspaper editors.

Last year, Common Cause/Pennsylvania gave Mr. Stilp and three other activists an award for their work in opposing the pay raises. They were Tim Potts of Carlisle, head of Democracy Rising Pa, Mr. Epstein of Harrisburg, and Russ Diamond of Lebanon, who started Pennsylvania Clean Sweep.

"We gave them our public service achievement award," said Executive Director Barry Kauffman, "in recognition of their ability to awake, inform and motivate the public to take action in a way that improved governance."

Mr. Stilp, 46, has a law degree but doesn't actively practice law. He lives in a rural area of Dauphin County and describes himself as a "citizen activist." He's been one, he added, "off and on since Three Mile Island happened in 1979."

He earns a living as a "self-employed consultant" working with police, fire and emergency medical personnel on first responder techniques and equipment.

"But I don't want to talk about me," he said. "I'm nobody. I've made my share of mistakes. I want to talk about the present and about bringing reforms to the Legislature."

He also is willing to talk about his lawsuits: against the 2005 pay raises, against unvouchered expense accounts for lawmakers, against tying state judges' salaries to those of federal judges, against the four $50 million "leadership accounts" controlled by House and Senate Democratic leaders, and now against the staff bonuses.

Even though the state Supreme Court last year upheld its own raises and those of other judges, it did ban the unvouchered expense accounts used by legislators to take the July 2005 pay raises immediately by claiming the money counted as "expenses."

Mr. Stilp considers that a significant victory. And he's pleased with the progress made so far to focus attention on legislative spending but said much more has to be done.

"I think legislators are realizing that citizens are serious about taking back their government," he said.

Bradley C. Bower, Associated Press
Harrisburg political activist Gene Stilp answers a question during a debate last April in Harrisburg during his candidacy for lieutenant governor.
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Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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