Move afoot to limit or ban cash gifts to state lawmakers

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HARRISBURG — Citing what they see as lax restrictions on gifts to public officials, good-government activists are pushing for tighter limits.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday inside the main entrance to the Capitol building, good-government advocates Gene Stilp, Eric Epstein and Dennis Baylor accused high-level state officials of taking advantage of the privileges of their offices and accepting gifts that represent conflicts of interest.

The activists pointed to an investigation that uncovered four state lawmakers allegedly accepting gifts from an undercover informant without reporting them. Attorney General Kathleen Kane called off the operation, saying flaws made it impossible to prosecute.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time that none of the lawmakers disclosed having accepted the gifts from the undercover informant.

State law does not place a limit on the value of gifts that public officials can receive, making the state one of 13 that place no limits on such gifts, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Pennsylvania lawmakers are required to report gifts of more than $250.

The activists proposed adopting a law similar to Iowa’s, which allows legislators to receive non-monetary gifts not to exceed $3 from any one donor per day.

Mr. Epstein pointed to the alleged violations uncovered in the investigation and other supposed conflicts of interest to contend that Pennsylvania laws need to place tighter restrictions on gifts.

“I think it’s pretty clear that rules and voluntary enforcement don’t work in Harrisburg,” Mr. Epstein said.

While the activists pointed to the aborted investigation as evidence that current laws are inadequate, representatives of state officials disagreed with the characterization Mr. Epstein and Mr. Stilp offered.

Jay Pagni, a spokesperson for Gov. Tom Corbett, said the governor called publicly for a ban on all cash gifts in March after details of the investigation became public.

“Legislators are following the law as it exists now,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democrats. “Gifts that exceed $250 are being reported as required under the law.”

Mr. Patton said the activists’ expectations, which appear to include immediate and comprehensive reforms, are unrealistic.

He pointed out that lawmakers have proposed additional restrictions on gifts for public officials in recent months.

Representatives Warren Kampf, R-Chester, and Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, introduced bills last month that would explicitly ban officials from accepting cash gifts from anyone but spouses, other family members and friends.

The Senate unanimously approved a bill by Republicans Lloyd Smucker, Lancaster, and Lisa Baker, Luzerne, in April that would further prohibit officials from accepting cash gifts from lobbyists and others with a special interest in policy. The bill is under review in House State Government Committee. Restrictions provided in the bill would also extend to cash gifts of less than $250.

Gideon Bradshaw is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association.

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