State legislators consider restrictions on cash gifts

HARRISBURG -- When allegations became public that four Philadelphia state representatives had accepted cash from an undercover operative, the Senate and leaders of the House moved quickly to ban monetary gifts in their chambers.

Now legislators are considering what broader restrictions might be needed to bolster a sense of integrity in the Capitol.

On Monday, the Senate State Government Committee took testimony on the question of limiting gifts to public officials. State law requires the reporting of gifts totaling $250, with exceptions for those from family and friends, and of hospitality costing more than $650 per year.

Committee chairman Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, said he is working with other legislators on a bill that would include some form of a ban on gifts. He said they hope to introduce a measure in the next few weeks.

"We have a long history of instance after instance of corruption," he said. "I don't think it's enough any longer for us to just be comfortable that we think as individuals we're doing the right thing. There's a broader question of being part of an institution that we all want to be proud of and not letting the actions of one individual or several individuals sully the reputation of that institution."

Mr. Smucker said legislators had been discussing overhauls in the wake of scandals, including allegations of a pay-to-play culture at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, but were prompted to action when The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in March that at least four Democratic state representatives from Philadelphia had accepted money from an undercover operative working for the state attorney general's office.

Weeks later, the Senate unanimously approved legislation that would ban public officials and employees from accepting gifts of cash, including gift certificates, from lobbyists or anyone else seeking to influence the legislative process. That measure is in a House committee, where it will stay, House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said, until a hearing in June.

Republican and Democratic House leaders earlier this month signed a document restricting House members and employees from accepting cash gifts. (The Senate, along with its gift legislation, approved a rule barring its members and staff from accepting money from lobbyists.)

"As to anything further, we believe we need to take a deliberative approach," Mr. Miskin said. "Until we see what all the facts are, it's hard to determine exactly what laws need to be strengthened or tweaked -- if any -- [and] what bills need to be introduced."

Pennsylvania is following a trend over the past six or seven years of states tightening their gift laws, said Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Eleven states, including Pennsylvania, place no monetary restrictions on gifts, according to the ethics center, though Pennsylvania law prohibits gifts meant to influence a vote or other official action. Thirty states limit gifts to a monetary threshold, while nine states ban lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators, according to the center.

Senators on Monday heard from Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a good-government group, who encouraged them to end or seriously restrict the giving of gifts. They also heard from John Schaaf, counsel to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, who described steps that state has taken to strengthen ethics rules.

Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, said he sees the developing legislation as a bipartisan effort that should address not just gifts but broader issues, such as campaign finance overhaul.

"It's got to be part of the overall dialogue of reform and creating a government that is more responsive to the citizens," he said.

Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley.

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