Brian O'Neill: Sick cycle still revolves in Harrisburg around lawmakers and money

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The botched sting operation by state prosecutors wouldn't make much of a movie, but if you were going to do one you could call it "American Fizzle.''

Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced last week that despite an undercover informant passing around $20,000 in taxpayer money to four Philadelphia Democratic state representatives and others, she has no case.

Given that Ms. Kane is a Democrat, this looks so fishy that she's spent the past week outlining just how poor a case she was handed by her Republican predecessors. The investigation they launched improperly cast too narrow a net, she said. They focused on black targets, and they prematurely granted immunity to the informant for his past crimes of fraud, effectively stripping him of any credibility or reason to talk further with prosecutors.

"The thought of elected officials taking money and violating the public's trust makes me sick,'' her argument began, and she spent the rest of it explaining why she was unable to do anything about that.

More than one Western Pennsylvania lawmaker (North Hills Republican Sen. Jane Orie and Waynesburg Democrat Bill DeWeese) has done prison time for less than what is alleged here. Orie and DeWeese stole time from taxpayers when their underlings did campaign work on the state clock; these four Philadelphia lawmakers are on tape receiving thousands of dollars like the bit players in "American Hustle,'' yet they might walk.

Pennsylvanians have been given an embarrassment of choices for where to direct their anger, but here's just one: What's legal in America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature is often as alarming as what isn't.

The day before Ms. Kane held her news conference, the Philadelphia Inquirer named these four lawmakers as taking money in this sting that now looks more like a moth kiss: Rep. Ron Water received $7,650; Rep. Vanessa Brown, $4,000; Rep. Michelle Brownlee, $3,500; and Rep. Louise Bishop, $1,500.

That's a lot of cabbage. Yet one of House Democratic leader Frank Dermody's first comments in response was that "if it's true that any legislators accepted gifts without reporting them, they should correct that reporting mistake."

"Reporting mistake"? Does this mean a lawmaker can accept thousands of dollars in cash as long as he or she writes that down on the appropriate line?

That's right, kids. There's no upper limit, and the Philly Four could still amend their annual disclosure forms even though this money is said to have found its way into their pockets in 2010 and 2011.

Rob Caruso, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, said the civil penalty for a late filing is capped at $250. If the non-disclosure is deemed intentional, however, the commission may compel the dilatory discloser to write a check to the commonwealth equal to the money received, plus $250.

That seems only fair. That's where the money came from in the first place.

Beyond that, the commission can refer possible misdemeanor charges to law enforcement, Mr. Caruso said. It historically has gone to the attorney general, but since Ms. Kane has punted the investigation, federal or county prosecutors could be contacted.

On another front, the House Committee on Ethics (not to be confused with the Ethics Commission) should be looking into this. Leaders of both parties in the House support that move, but the committee works under a Cone of Silence that would be the envy of Agent Maxwell Smart.

Even the fact that it's conducting an investigation is considered confidential. A public report is made to the House only if a majority of the committee (four Democrats and four Republicans) finds unethical or illegal conduct occurred.

So we can't even know how often this committee has met, let alone what it's been talking about. Ain't that reassuring, fellow taxpayers?

Obviously, at a minimum, the gifted money needs to find its way back to the state coffers. Until then, we can bide our time arguing whether Ms. Kane has cut a break to Philadelphia Democrats or if the Republicans handed her a dormant no-win case on their way out of the Attorney General's office.

Brian O'Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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