Brian O'Neill: Pennsylvania overdue to ban cash gifts to lawmakers

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Here's a wild idea out of Harrisburg: Lawmakers should stop accepting envelopes stuffed with cash.

This radical proposal comes from Sen. Daylin Leach, a suburban Philadelphia Democrat. Mr. Leach couldn't help but notice that four of his colleagues from that city are reportedly on tape accepting thousands of dollars from a government informant.

Despite those tapes, Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane dropped that case like third-period French. The Philadelphia Inquirer broke the story a week and a half ago, and Ms. Kane has spent most of the time since trying to explain why.

Mr. Leach is not taking a side there but he believes, as I do, that what's legal for members of America's Largest Full-Time State Legislature is often as alarming as what's illegal. So this idea that lawmakers should be able to accept great piles of cash from lobbyists as long as they report it and avoid promising anything in return?

He thinks that's just nuts.

"No one's dumb enough to say, 'Yes, I'll vote for the bill if you give me the money,' " Mr. Leach said.

Legislators are going to know what a lobbyist wants without being told. So any time cash changes hands, Pennsylvania's ethics referees should be throwing a flag. That's what Mr. Leach's proposed legislation should accomplish.

If his bill passes, no lawmaker would be allowed to accept cash, of any amount, as a personal gift from a registered lobbyist -- or anyone else who isn't family. The legislation also would cap cash campaign contributions at $50.

If somebody hands a lawmaker a $10 bill at a picnic and says he wants it to go to the campaign, that's fine, Mr. Leach says. But the "almost cartoonish level of corruption" that has been described in the press reports of Philadelphia lawmakers accepting thousands of dollars, that can't stand.

Like me and others, Mr. Leach was surprised to learn how flimsy current Pennsylvania law is on this subject. In his 12 years as a legislator, he hadn't run across anyone like Tyron B. Ali, the lobbyist-turned-informant who was handing out cash like a rogue host from "Let's Make A Deal."

"I don't know if I'm doing something wrong, but nobody's ever offered me an envelope of cash," Mr. Leach said. "Maybe I'm not important enough."

Had he boned up on the statehouse rules, such as they are, he'd have known just what he was missing. He could be handed a $50 bill here and C-note there and he'd still be OK as long as he kept his annual take from any single source under $250.

The rules say a lawmaker must disclose his sources and circumstances of his gifts only when "the amount of any gift or gifts [is] valued in the aggregate at $250 or more." Even then, there's a loophole the size of a thick envelope: friends and family are excluded. That friend can't be a registered lobbyist or an employee of same, but it still looks bad.

"I have a lot of friends," Mr. Leach said. "They tend not to give me cash."

(Coincidentally, my friends share the same flaw.)

Mr. Leach thinks some version of his bill will pass. As Republicans have a majority in both houses of the General Assembly, the bill that passes likely will have the name of someone from across the aisle at the top, but that's OK with him. He'll know he took the lead on a new policy that will be an improvement.

I wondered how he could be so confident, given how many bills stall and die in every legislative session. He said putting the brakes on cash gifts is an "irresistible idea" after all the fallout from the allegations that four Philadelphia lawmakers took anywhere from $1,500 to $7,650 each without reporting it.

"How do you defend [the status quo]?" Mr. Leach asked. "You know what's a really good idea? Legislators can go get unlimited envelopes of cash. Yay!"

Admittedly, that doesn't sound good. But don't bet the amount in any of those envelopes that reform is a cinch.


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

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